EU foreign ministers agree to scrap Russia visa deal but stop short of full tourist ban

·4-min read

The European Union has decided to fully suspend a 2007 visa agreement with Russia and intensify scrutiny over the future applications submitted by Russian tourists.

The political decision, taken in response to the invasion of Ukraine, falls short of the outright visa ban advocated by countries neighbouring Russia and receiving visitors by land.

The suspension of the agreement is expected to significantly hinder the visa application process, making it much more expensive, burdensome and drawn-out for Russian nationals planning to visit the bloc.

"It’s going to be more difficult and longer, and consequently the number of new visas will be substantially reduced," said Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, at the end of an informal meeting of foreign affairs ministers in Prague.

"This is a common approach and a common approach will prevent potential visa-shopping by Russians, going here and there, trying to [find] the best conditions."

Passports issued by Russian authorities inside the occupied territories of Ukraine will not be recognised across EU territory, the diplomat added.

Ministers also tasked the European Commission with looking into possible ways to tackle the estimated 12 million visas issued to Russian citizens that are still in circulation.

Borrell had personally opposed the total ban against Russian citizens, arguing the bloc needed to be "more selective" and leave the door open for those attempting to flee Vladimir Putin's regime.

"We don’t want to cut ourselves from those Russians who are against the war in Ukraine," he said.

Germany, France, Portugal and Spain took similar positions against the unprecedented measure.

On the other side, a group of Eastern and Northern countries, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic, joined forces to introduce far-reaching EU-wide action that would suspend or drastically reduce the issuance of visas for Russians.

In their view, the Russian population overwhelmingly supports President Putin and, by extension, the occupation that he decided to launch against Ukraine.

"Normal tourism should not continue as business as usual," said Finnish Foreign Affairs Minister Pekka Haavisto on Wednesday morning.

Finland has already slashed by 90% the number of visas for Russian nationals. The country has seen cases of Russian tourists who cross the 1,300-kilometre-long land border to then travel to Finnish airports and fly to warmer EU destinations.

Data from Frontex, the EU's border control agency, shows that, since the Ukraine war broke out in late February, nearly a million Russian citizens have legally entered the bloc via land, mostly through the Nordic and Baltic states.

Euronews.
Russian nationals enter the EU by land mainly through bordering countries, like Finland and Estonia. - Euronews.

People-to-people contacts

When it comes to tourism, EU countries can issue their own national visas, designed for a short stay inside just one country, and Schengen visas, which enable travel across the passport-free Schengen Area.

Because Schengen is a borderless zone, the issuance of this kind of visa requires a decision agreed upon by all member states. (Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Cyprus and Ireland remain outside Schengen.)

The 2007 facilitation agreement was meant to give preferential treatment to Russian requests.

Some countries had previously taken steps to unilaterally halt or limit the number of visas for Russian nationals, with exceptions for family reunion, diplomatic affairs and humanitarian assistance.

"It’s our national competence, under the principle of national security, to decide the issues of entry into our [country]," said Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister Urmas Reinsalu.

Borrell noted the influx of Russian visitors, which increased during summer, posed a "security risk" for neighbouring countries and could require extra action on their side.

"The situation in the border has become challenging," he said. "These countries can take measures at national level to restrict entry into the EU through their borders, always in conformity with Schengen [rules]."

Although the idea for the outright visa ban came from the East, it gained traction in recent days and attracted support from other governments, including the Netherlands.

"While people-to-people contacts are important, now we see primarily rich Russians coming to Europe for shopping," said Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Wopke Hoekstra.

"This is not a good idea. It does make sense to limit this kind of travel."

But the growing calls in favour of the ban bumped into the joint opposition of Germany and France, the EU's largest and most powerful countries.

"While understanding the concerns of some member states in this context we should not underestimate the transformative power of experiencing life in democratic systems at first hand, especially for future generations," the two nations wrote in a document.

"Our visa policies should reflect that and continue to allow for people-to-people contacts in the EU with Russian nationals not linked to the Russian government."

Spain and Portugal also took a more balanced position, insisting on penalising "Russia's war machine" rather than its ordinary citizens.

The decision announced on Wednesday is just a political agreement and will have to be thrashed out and rubberstamped at a later stage so it can enter into force.