EU foreign ministers in Prague may take first step towards tourist visa ban

Tallinn Airport.
Tallinn Airport. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

EU foreign ministers will meet in Prague on Tuesday for an informal "Gymnich" format meeting, where they are expected to take the first step towards restricting the movement of Russian citizens in Europe. However, the decision to suspend visits by Russian tourists altogether, as requested by Estonia and several other countries, is unlikely to be taken on Wednesday.

EU foreign ministers gathering in Prague on Tuesday for an informal - so-called "Gymnich" format - meeting are expected to take a first step towards restricting the movement of Russian citizens in Europe. However, the decision to suspend visits by Russian tourists altogether, as requested by Estonia and several other countries, is unlikely to be taken on Wednesday.

"I am going to the meeting with the proposal to impose an eighth package of sanctions against Russia, including restrictions on Russian citizens entering the European Union with tourist visas," Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told ERR on Monday.

According to Reinsalu, Estonia is fighting to put pressure on Russia to immediately stop its aggression in Ukraine, and sanctions, including visa restrictions, are one of the means to achieve that goal.

Reinsalu acknowledged that there are both supporters and opponents of the proposal by Estonia and other countries to suspend the entry of Russian tourists into the EU, but that the political debate, which will be held in Prague Castle, is an opportunity to hear views from all sides.

Some southern European countries such as Greece and Cyprus are known to be against the introduction of entry restrictions for Russian citizens with tourist visas, with a number of other countries also expressing the desire for a pan-European agreement to be in place.

In addition, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said that the Russians cannot be collectively punished.

However, in an interview with ERR, both Foreign Minister Reinsalu and Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Riigikogu's foreign affairs committee, mentioned the changing positions of EU countries over the war in Ukraine. While the EU was initially very cautious about providing military assistance to Ukraine, now arms are being supplied on a large scale. While there have also been heated debates before the imposition of each of the sanctions packages to date, in the end agreement has been reached on their adoption. In the same way, the proposal to restrict the entry of Russian citizens, which was first tabled a month ago, now appears to have the support of several EU member states.

Visa liberalization for Russians disappears

As predicted in the Financial Times over the weekend, EU Foreign ministers in Prague are still likely to agree to freeze the current visa facilitation agreement between the EU and Russia.

Under the existing agreement, the process for Russian citizens to apply for Schengen visas from EU embassies is faster, requires the submission of less documentation, and includes lower visa fees than those for other (third) countries.

Part of the visa agreement, which concerned travel by Russian government officials and businessmen, was already frozen by the EU in February, following the start of Russia's full-scale military invasion of Ukraine.

However, while suspending this agreement would deprive Russian citizens of preferential treatment and significantly increase waiting times, and, as a result, most likely reduce the number of Russian citizens entering the EU, neither the Baltic countries nor Finland consider the measure sufficient.

"Freezing this agreement will not fulfil the objective of stopping the issuance of visas to Russian citizens altogether," said Marko Mihkelson.

Estonian representatives at the meeting have stressed that the proposed travel restrictions for Russian citizens in the EU has both moral and, for Estonia, security dimensions.

At the beginning of the aggression, air connections between Russia and EU countries were suspended. However, the possibility to enter the EU (by land) undermines the original aim of the restriction and does not stop Russian citizens from traveling.

With nearly 300,000 Russian citizens having passed through Estonia since the start of Russia's full-scale military invasion, Estonian representatives have pointed out that Estonia cannot control the movement of those who hold visas issued by other EU member states. By way of example, Estonia cited the case of two Russian propagandists, who arrived in Narva on visas issued in Finland and Italy, at the time when the city's Soviet tank memorial was being removed. Both were expelled from the country by police.

"All these Russian tourists come across our land border. We can't control everyone and we have to bear the burden for the other Schengen countries. I don't think that's right," Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told Italian newspaper la Repubblica in an interview at the weekend.

"There is also a moral side: it is not right that Russian citizens can easily come and enjoy holidays in Europe while their country is at war with another sovereign country, killing and torturing its people. Citizens are also responsible for the actions of their countries," Kallas added.

A change in the EU's position is possible

While, at the moment there does not seem to be the general consensus required amongst EU members required to implement a policy change on the issue, there are signs that attitudes toward broader restrictions on the entry of Russian citizens, may be shifting in Estonia's favor.

The Financial Times also quoted an anonymous EU official at the weekend as saying that tougher measures may be needed by the end of the year, and at the EU could go further than just ending the visa facilitation agreement.

Prague is also reportedly waiting to see what proposals the European Commission will come before foreign ministers with.

For example, the Commission can make recommendations to countries regarding ways to interpret and implement the existing Schengen rules.

There were also some signs over the weekend of a change, or at least a slight split, in the positions  of the German leadership on the issue. While Chancellor Olaf Scholz has so far maintained that he is against imposing restrictions on ordinary Russian citizens, stating that the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops is "Putin's war," German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Friday, that she hoped to reach an EU consensus on travel restrictions for Russian citizens.

Baerbock also added that Scholz had not taken a position which ruled out the potential to impose restrictions on EU tourism by Russian citizens and expressed hope that a solution would be found that takes into account the different situations of each member state.

Border countries can act unilaterally

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told ERR on Monday, that in addition to meeting with foreign ministers from the 27 EU member states, he also planned to hold a separate meeting in Prague with his counterparts from countries which border Russia, to coordinate their future approaches.

When asked about the possibility that restrictions on Russian visas could be introduced by the group of bordering countries only, Reinsalu said he would certainly prefer a pan-European decision, but did not rule out other steps if the European Union could not reach a consensus.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said last week, that if a pan-European agreement related to the visa ban for Russian citizens could not be found, EU member states bordering Russia may collectively impose their own restrictions .

While Finland has also expressed a desire to limit the flow of Russian tourists, Helsinki has so far stressed the need for a joint EU agreement.

"Gymnich" gives political direction

The "Gymnich" format of the informal meetings between EU foreign ministers in Prague dates back to 1974, when the first meeting of its kind was held at Schloss Gymnich in Erftstadt in Land North Rhine-Westphalia.

Gymnich meetings are held every six months and organized by the Presidency of the Council of the EU, which is currently held by the Czech Republic. Gymnich meetings are distinctive as foreign ministers meet without aides or assistants, allowing for a more frank and open exchange of views.

While no formal political decisions are taken at Gymnich meetings, agreements about how to proceed with current agreements and which courses of action to be taken may be reached.

The meeting of EU foreign ministers starts on Tuesday afternoon and continues on Wednesday. Discussions are scheduled on the broader issue of Russian aggression in Ukraine and its global consequences, as well as further sanctions against Russia. The European outlook for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, as well as relations between the EU and Africa are also on the agenda.. The Foreign Ministers of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have also been invited to a side event.

On the sidelines of the meeting, an informal lunch will be held with the Moldovan, Georgian and Ukrainian foreign ministers.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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