Portal: EU hits out at UK higher visa fees for Estonian citizens

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Estonia's new passport designs. Source: PPA

Estonia is one of five European Union countries not eligible for a discount in United Kingdom visa fees, news portal Politico reports, following the end of the Brexit transition period at the end of last year. The European Union says the situation, where citizens of member states are treated differently in their entry rights into Britain, should not continue.

Estonia joins Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia from among the EU27 whose citizens cannot obtain a discounted visa – also offered to four non-EU countries – a development which has led to a diplomatic offensive on the matter, Politico reports.

Britain says that the eligibility list – which would see a £55 (€62.75) reduction in fees when applying via several visa routes and primarily affecting skilled workers, healthcare staff, entrepreneurs and seasonal workers – is based on a Council of Europe treaty signed in 1961 and adopted by 26 countries, including the U.K. itself; the map of Europe has changed in the intervening time, and while the constituent countries of the former Yugoslavia are signatories, the Soviet Union, under whose occupation Estonia lay at the time, did not sign.

The Council of Europe is a separate entity from the EU and predates both it and its forerunner, the European Economic Community, having been founded in 1949. It focuses on human rights and the upholding of democracy and the rule of law.

EU representatives are nonetheless pushing back against the move, calling it an early example of post-Brexit Britain discriminating against citizens from different countries which would previously have had the same status, in terms of right of entry, noting the requirements affect non-EU countries as well.

The changes also affect U.K. employers of Estonians traveling on a work visa, as a certificate of sponsorship costs a reported £199 (a little over €227) per person.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs: We disagree with U.K. interpretation of Council of Europe treaty

The U.K. visa will cost Estonian citizens £232 (€264.62), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told ERR's online news in Estonian, for a period of up to three years.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Kairi Saar-Isop told ERR that the UK is only taking into account the original 1961 version of the treaty, properly named the European Social Charter, which as noted excludes Estonia, rather than a newer version from 1996 which Estonia, by then independent, did accede to.

Isop added that both the ministry's and the Council of Europe's view is that the U.K.'s interpretation of the charter is incorrect.

Isop also said that Estonia was working to find a solution both bilaterally and with the EU.

She said: "We have raised the issue with the U.K. Embassy in Estonia and the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and at EU level we have sent a letter from the five Member States to Maroš Ševčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission and Co-Chair of the EU-U.K. Partnership Council. We have also asked for expert opinion from the Council of Europe experts."

"According to information received from the U.K., this situation cannot continue over a lengthy period; a solution is being worked on, though it will not be forthcoming very soon. We intend to continue raising the issue at all three levels, and to find a solution," Isop added.

Isop noted that the issue only affects Estonian citizens aiming to work in the U.K. and not tourists and those visiting for other purposes.

EU countries appealing to commission

Some EU countries have appealed to the European Commission to intervene; a commission spokesperson said that while both the EU and the U.K. can determine their own visa policies, the U.K. has committed in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement to treat all EU member states' citizens equally when It comes to short-term visas, though with regard to long-term visas, Brussels may find it harder to find legal recourse, Politico finds, while at the same time the situation may proliferate as the U.K. negotiates bilateral agreements with EU member states.

Estonia temporarily banned flights between it and the U.K. at the end of 2020 after a more potent strain of the coronavirus was found to be spreading in southern England in particular.

While flights can now operate, Estonia has since the new year imposed a longer quarantine requirement on U.K. arrivals – 14 days compared with 10 days for EU and other European countries – as well as a requirement to provide proof of a recent negative coronavirus test, or to test negative immediately upon arrival.

The U.K. responded with similar requirements for arrivals from all countries, including the EU and Estonia, later in January.

This article was updated to include comment from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Estonia.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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