Keit Kasemets: Russian citizens' access to the EU needs to be curbed

Keit Kasemets.
Keit Kasemets. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Europe will never be able to individually identify every relative, child and lover of Russian politicians, top officials and military leaders to put on black lists. Because of this, a broader ban on entry is necessary, Keit Kasemets writes.

Data from the EU's border agency Frontex suggests that 856,000 Russian citizens have entered the EU by crossing its land border since the war [in Ukraine] started. Most have crossed the border between Russia and the EU, while people also come via Belarus, Turkey, Serbia, and by using the airlines of a few other countries.

The number of Russian tourists coming to Europe has been growing throughout the summer. Over 70,000 Russian citizens crossed the land border into the EU during the first week of August. People mostly come via Finland (268,500 people) and Estonia (249,600 people).

Among those coming to the EU are people with a permanent residence permit and those with double citizenship, while most people travel to Europe with long- and short-term visas. People take cars, coaches or trains to Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and from there grab flights to European resorts.

This is not right morally, and restricting Russian citizens' access to the EU would undoubtedly be an effective sanction, looking at the reactions of Russian politicians.

Looking at EU capacity, a pan-European entry ban for Russian citizens would not be an easy one, while it is by no means impossible either. The principles of the Schengen area would have to be observed.

Creating the Schengen area, states wanted to share in the benefits of free movement in the EU, while no one wished to surrender independent decision-making capacity. European countries can decide who gets a Schengen visa, while the document can be used to move throughout the entire visa zone.

A country guarding the Schengen area's external border must grant entry to those holding a visa. This means that while Estonia can stop issuing visas and deny entry to those holding visas it has itself issued, those with visas granted by, for example, Germany, must still be allowed in.

States can also temporarily close their borders to third country citizens and even EU citizens, as we saw during the coronavirus period. However, these decisions are up to member states as opposed to the EU. Denying entry to the entire EU requires a unanimous and principled decision by EU leaders that every country would execute independently under compliance monitoring by the European Commission.

There are two options, broadly speaking.

Firstly, to stop issuing visas to Russian citizens. This would bar Russian citizens entry to the EU but would have a relatively long effect horizon as many hold long-term visas. This would require a political agreement executed by every member state.

The other option would be to deny visa holders entry based on security considerations. This is also formally a state-level decision. The system worked much the same way during the Covid period when the European Commission proposed a list of third countries from which entry into Europe was deemed safe. The countries agreed on the list and went about implementing it together.

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Czechia have stopped issuing visas to Russian citizens. Estonia has decided to deny entry to people it has issued visas in the past. While this works to curb the number of Russian citizens coming to Europe, it still allows hundreds of thousands to enter the EU as other member states continue issuing visas and do not bar entry. Only a Europe-wide entry ban sought, in addition to Estonia, by Finland, Latvia and Czechia would work as a sanction.

The initiative has hardly been met with enthusiasm among other European states. A part of protestations are based on Central Europe's broader principles of personal freedoms and free movement, others are more specific. None really matter after Russia unleashed its war in Ukraine as the situation has changed categorically.

One of the main counterarguments is that an entire nation or population cannot be punished for a single group's crimes. It is also suggested that a blanket ban would render pointless sanctions and bans on entry against specific individuals.

This is so, on the one hand. But the situation today is also that Europe will never be able to individually identify every relative, child and lover of Russian politicians, top officials and military leaders to put on black lists. Because of this, a broader ban on entry is necessary.

European debates recall how the EU was deeply critical of U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to deny Iranians, Syrians and Libyans entry to USA. The decisions cannot be compared. In Trump's case, it mostly concerned people fleeing war, not citizens of a country that had attacked another.

The broader logic of not punishing everyone also does not work in the case of Russia. It is the first country to publicly go to war against another European state after WWII. Polls suggest most Russian residents support Vladimir Putin's war.

More specific arguments are tied to fears that an entry ban would cause families to be separated and make entering Europe impossible also for Russian dissidents. These rather come off as an excuse as there are different types of visas and groups affected by the entry ban can be narrowly defined.

Czechia, as the current EU presidency, has promised that the entry ban will be discussed at the August 31 informal foreign ministerial. Looking at debates in Europe, restricting Russian citizens' access to the EU is not impossible but needs to be well-aimed.

It is both realistic and necessary to stop Russian tourists coming to Europe. While individual countries' decisions to stop issuing visas are less effective than a Europe-wide ban, it is in Estonia's interest to try and convince as many countries as possible. The more countries executing entry bans by late August, the more likely a unanimous decision will become.

Keit Kasemets is a political scientist and headed Estonia's European Commission Representation in 2016-2022.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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