Politics

The EU opens its doors to Ukranians

Article published on May 12, 2017
Article published on May 12, 2017

Last Thursday the European Parliament voted for allowing visa-free travel to EU for Ukrainians with 521 votes pro, 75 against and 36 abstaining. The agreement will enter into force in June after being accepted by the Council of the European Union and published in the Official Journal of the European Union. 

The European Parliament's decision is one of the last steps towards introducing visa-free travel to EU for Ukrainians. The talks and procedures go back to 2008. In July that year, the Ukraine-EU summit saw the beginning of Association Agreement negotiations and in October, talks on visa waiver began. 

In 2011, during Ukraine-EU summit in Brussels, a plan of action for visa regime liberalisation was proposed. 

However, in 2013, pro-Russian Ukranian president Viktor Yanukovych decided not to sign the Association Agreement, which provoked massive protests commonly known as 'Euromaidan'. The protests forced the government to step down, demanding the former president flee to Russia, which in turn made it possible for the pro-European opposition to seize power. In 2014, the agreement was signed. Nevertheless, later it was declined by the Netherlands during the process of ratification by member states. There was a referendum on the issue, organised in agreement with the national law. The negotiations continued and eventually the Netherlands also accepted the agreement after being granted a few political guarantees

In April 2016, the European Comission decided to add Ukraine to the list of countries whose citizens may freely travel around the Schengen zone for up to 90 days per year. This decision had to be approved by other European institutions first. Up to that point, it was also unclear as to when the visa waiver would be implemented. 

Oksana, who works as a translator in the Polish embassy in Kiev, thinks that the ability to travel freely and to see the world is not only a benefit for tourists.

"People's mindset and behaviour in their own country depends on the comparison they can make with the situation in other countries. The opportunity to see how some problems are solved in EU countries may become an inspiration for Ukraine. The Soviet past which drowned out any bottom-up initiatives [leads to the] current problem: society is unable to exercise its civil rights. Let me give you an example: you go on a journey to Europe and see that you don't put billboards on historic buildings. After you go home, such a situation in your hometown will become annoying," she says. 

She is referring to the story of a restaurant in the capital that put a large billboard on a historic building, right in the city centre. People's reactions were immediate. They submitted a petition to the city council and informed the media. The restaurant's owners had to apologise and remove the advertisement the very same day.

"I believe that such local initiatives are important for Ukrainians today," Oksana concludes. 

On April 5th, there was a debate in the European Parliament on the project of visa-free travel for Ukraine. Extreme right- and left-wing members were against the idea, but most MEPs supported the proposal, which was reflected in the vote on the following day. 

The Parliament's decision provoked a vivid social reaction. 

Majkl Szczur, a journalist, wrote on his Facebook: "Visa-free travel is coming. I wish you all amazing journeys. Just don't screw it up. Visas are very easy to reintroduce."

Andrij Andruszkiw, the founder of the 'Centr UA' association, jokingly asked:

 "So will people stop posting visa pictures on Facebook now? Really?"

According to Andrei Gavrilov--a Swiss pianist of Russian origin--in 30 or 40 years, changes caused by this decision will become visible. Gavrilov emigrated from the Soviet Union to London, now lives in Switzerland and holds 4 citizenships. 

"I want you to understand how important it is and what great trust you have received from the global community [...] During the last four years I have been talking about this to everybody and I have fiercely defended your interests. [...] I have my small share in this too."

Gavrilov also reacted to negative comments pointing to the fact that, due to the difficult economic situation, not everyone will be able to afford to travel despite the visa waiver.

"Unfortunately, those are the victims of the last 75 years. They won't be able to fully enjoy it. But the younger generation will," he said.

On Polish websites, there are comments saying that after visa waiver, Ukrainians who work in Poland will emigrate further West. It is worth mentioning that freedom of travel doesn't guarantee a work permit (for which you have to apply in each country, as it used to be). What's more, only those holding biometric passports will be able to enter the EU without a visa for touristic, business and family purposes. 

Lyudmyla, an employee of the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, says that the visa waiver means a new level of freedom for her. 

"Among people from my environment it was often the case to give up on spending holidays in one of the EU countries because of this whole visa process. The red-tape was huge: you needed certificates from your workplace, bank, hotel. People felt humiliated. In order to get a visa, you had to keep proving that you didn't intend to stay there, that you wouldn't become an immigrant. You had to buy a return ticket in advance, get confirmation of accommodation from your hotel and provide a proof of payment. For many people it was embarrassing," she explains.  

An earlier visa waiver for Georgia and Moldavia shows that such decisons don't provoke a surge in the number of emigrants, of which the sceptics are afraid of. Those who decide to leave for a longer period of time (e.g. to study or work) will still need to apply for a visa. Additionally, the agreement doesn't include Ireland and Great Britain as they don't belong to the Schengen zone. On the other hand, some countries outside EU but in the Schengen don't require visas, such as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.  

Such as is the case of Georgia, it is expected that the ratification of the agreement by the Council of the European Union will be a mere formality. Ukraine has already gone through the most crucial stage - the vote in the European Parliament.