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Why Europe’s fears of lifting visa for Ukraine are groundless

Ukrainians protest during Euromaidan in Paris, France. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Why Europe’s fears of lifting visa for Ukraine are groundless
Article by: Institute of World Policy in cooperation with the Europe Without Barriers, the Anticorruption Action Center, the Yevropeiska Pravda, and the independent experts.
Why Europeans are afraid of lifting visa for Ukrainians, and why their fears are groundless.

On December 18, 2015, the European Commission approved the report on the implementation of the Visa Liberalization Action Plan (VLAP) by Ukraine, while in April it recommended that the EU Council granted us a visa-free regime.

However, the discussion of the ‘visa-free issue’ is still ongoing in the European Union. Some EU member-states fear the negative consequences which might be caused by the visa-free regime with Ukraine. Ukrainian Institute of World Policy in cooperation with the Europe Without Barriers, the Anticorruption Action Center, and the Europeiska Pravda prepared a report which proves that most of European fears are unsubstantiated.

Fear # 1:

There is a risk that the labor market of the European Union will be flooded by the Ukrainian workforce

Actually, visa liberalization for Ukraine applies only to short-term visas (for stay in the Schengen area for up to 90 days) and does not give the right to work.

Team of Ukrainian bike travelers in Spain, Summer of 2016. Photo from:
Team of Ukrainian bike travelers in Spain, Summer of 2016. Photo from:

At the same time, the problem of illegal migration is becoming less acute. Last year, GfK’s research commissioned by the International Migration Organization found that the number of illegally employed citizens of Ukraine abroad decreased. At the same time, the issue of legal migration will remain within the responsibility of each individual EU member state. Some states keep the labor market closed, others open it to the Ukrainians because of the positive experience. [expand title=”Find out more“]

According to the IMO research, the number of illegally employed citizens of Ukraine abroad decreased from 328 000 in 2006 to 209 000 in 2015. According to the same research, the experience of visa-free regime between the EU and Moldova shows that after the introduction of visa-free regime the problem of illegal employment abroad has dropped to almost zero.

Some countries open it to the Ukrainians because of the positive experience. For example, the Czech Republic encourages the arrival of Ukrainian labor migrants and simplifies the procedures for obtaining permits for highly qualified workers from Ukraine. Cezary Kaźmierczak, head of the Polish Union of Entrepreneurs and Workers, said in early 2016: “Ukrainians are ‘high-class migrants’ who do not need to be taught the language or professional skills and do not have to be provided with accommodation, because they perfectly manage all this by themselves.” [/expand]

Fear #2:

Visa-free regime with Ukraine is a threat due to migration crisis in Europe and the war in Ukraine

First of all, Ukraine is not on the list of countries generating large flows of migrants. Thus, in 2015, the largest number of asylum requests was received from migrants coming from Syria (363 thousand), Afghanistan (178 thousand), and Iraq (121 thousand). Only 21 thousand citizens or mere 0.046% of the citizens of Ukraine – the country where the war is still raging– has asked for the asylum status.

Internally Displaced Persons from Donbas, Ukraine. Photo by AP.
Internally Displaced Persons from Donbas, Ukraine. Photo by AP.

More importantly, the Ukrainians have a slim chance of getting asylum in the EU. In 2015, only 415 Ukrainian were granted a refugee status in the EU. This is only 2% of all asylum seekers from Ukraine. For comparison, over the same period, the EU granted refugee status to 2,458 Russian citizens (6 times more).

Any parallels between Ukraine and other hot spots (especially Syria) are extremely questionable, given the different nature of conflicts and their course, but above all – the overall humanitarian and economic situation in the countries.[expand title=”Find out more“]

For comparison, 67 thousand citizens of Kosovo or 3.6% of the total population requested asylum in the EU last year, which is 72 times (!) more than the percentage of asylum seekers from Ukraine.

The main reason for refusing the Ukrainians the asylum status is “an alternative of internal migration” to the peaceful part of Ukraine. Despite the continuing shelling in Donbas, the security situation in most parts of Ukraine remains peaceful and stable, so there is no reason to expect a massive influx of Ukrainian refugees now – in the third year of confrontation. Minsk process, despite all its flaws and limitations, provides a fragile truce and creates the basis for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Even in the period of the most active hostilities in Donbas, major destinations for migrants from the conflict affected areas was not the EU, but other regions of Ukraine or, if we consider foreign countries, Russia and Belarus. The explanation is simple: the residents of Eastern Ukraine left to the regions where they had family ties and where they thought they would have better chances for successful social integration, taking into account common cultural and linguistic space.

According to the UN, about 387 thousand Ukrainians in the Russian Federation requested temporary asylum and a refugee status. 1.8 million citizens of Ukraine became internal migrants and found new homes and jobs in other regions of the country. [/expand]

Fear # 3:

Migrants from Ukraine bear the threat of increasing the rate of crime in the EU member states.

To disprove the stereotype of Ukrainians as criminals one should look at countries with large Ukrainian communities. One of them is Italy that has the largest Ukrainian community in Western Europe which formed as a result of the migration waves in the 1990s. The Ukrainian community in Italy is the fourth largest in the country after Moroccan, Albanian and Chinese. However, Ukrainians do not appear on the list of nations whose representatives are often detained because of suspicion of a crime (representatives of the Roma, Moroccan, Albanian, Tunisian and Nigerian communities rank here the highest).

Italians march in honor of Ukrainian migrant anatoliy Korol who died trying to stop shop burglars in September 2015. Photo by RFE/RL
Italians march in honor of Ukrainian migrant anatoliy Korol who died trying to stop shop burglars in September 2015. Photo by RFE/RL

In Germany, where immigration rates are among the highest among EU member states, crimes committed by migrants in 2015 have been identified with the citizens of Syria (24%), Albania (17%), Kosovo (14%), Serbia (11%) Afghanistan (11%), Iraq (9%), Eritrea (4%), Macedonia (4%), Pakistan (4%) and Nigeria (2%)  (according to the Gatestone Institute research). According to this research, Ukrainians were not placed on the list of the nationalities most prone to crime. [expand title=”Find out more“]

Both the Italian government and the Italian citizens call Ukrainians one of the most integrated minorities. Ukrainians in Italy have proven themselves as decent, hard-working, linguistically and culturally integrated citizens. A recent tragedy in the Italian city of Naples has drawn attention of all the national media when a Ukrainian citizen tried to stop robbers at a supermarket and was killed. The city named a street in his honor.

While in Italy migration is a serious issue, there is a support both at the governmental and public levels for visa liberalization for Ukraine. Italy has no fears related to the Ukrainian migrants, as it is aware of the Ukrainian mentality and character (most Italians personally know at least one Ukrainian).

Moreover, in the framework of VLAP implementation, Ukraine has significantly strengthened its capacity of stopping criminals and potential terrorists at border crossings. Ukraine has connected 39 border crossings to Interpol databases and has established close cooperation on border control with the neighboring countries. There are cases when international criminals have been detained while crossing the border of Ukraine.

Fear # 4:

Visa-free regime with Ukraine will irritate Russia

The EU strategy of maximum consideration for Russia’s ‘feelings’ in decisions regarding other states did not produce any positive results. On the contrary, the attempts of Brussels and other capitals not to irritate the Kremlin have only increased the appetite of the latter.

New Google Earth images prove presence of BUK missile on the Russia backed separatists controlled territories in Donbas before dawning MH17. Photo from: bellingcat
New Google Earth images prove presence of BUK missile on the Russia backed separatists controlled territories in Donbas before dawning MH17. Photo from: bellingcat

The agenda of the Russia-Ukraine-EU triangle includes many other issues which are more important to the Kremlin than the right of the Ukrainians to travel freely to the EU.

Instead, the opposite EU decision – to delay granting Ukraine a visa-free regime – will give the Kremlin a powerful argument for the anti-European propaganda both in Russia and across the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, where the pro-Russian political forces and social movements are still active.[expand title=”Find out more“]

If such a decision is adopted, the image of the EU as a reliable partner who promptly fulfills its own obligations will be disrupted in the eyes of the citizens of all the Eastern Partnership countries. Given the sensitivity of this issue, the EU risks losing the battle for hearts of not only Ukrainians and Georgians, but also their neighbors.

It is also worth noting that the visa-free regime between Ukraine and the EU meets the interests of Russia itself. Moscow seeks to restore the visa dialogue and depoliticize this issue. If the EU delays the visa-free regime with Ukraine for political reasons, despite the implementation of its Action Plan, it will seriously challenge possible resumption of dialogue between Russia and the EU. This will mean that the abolition of visas has become a political issue, when decisions are made under the influence of situational factors and are not results of technical criteria implementation.[/expand]

Fear # 5:

Ukraine is a corrupt country; the Visa Liberalization Action Plan (VLAP) has not been fully implemented

Over the past year Ukraine has done more to fight corruption than during its 25 years of independence. If there were no serious progress in this area, the issue of visa-free regime between Ukraine and the EU would not have been raised.

Ukraine's National Anticorruption Bureau in action, catching an official who tried to bribe on February 2016. Photo:
Ukraine’s National Anticorruption Bureau in action, catching an official who tried to bribe on February 2016. Photo:

The European Commission confirmed that Ukraine has implemented all the VLAP requirements related to combating corruption. In particular, Ukraine has established special independent bodies for the prevention of corruption and investigation of corruption crimes (National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption, the National Anticorruption Bureau, the Special Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office); the Agency for asset recovery and launch of electronic declaration of assets of public officials is being established.

These bodies have been set up not only formally – they started to work de facto. In the period of only four months, as of April 2016, the National Anticorruption Bureau has instituted 120 criminal proceedings in cases of corruption involving Ukrainian officials, transferred to court nine cases of 12 suspects, delivered 25 charge sheets, and arrested 220 million UAH. Visa-free regime offers a chance for successful continuation of this struggle. If the visa regime is delayed, politicians might use inconsistency of the EU as a pretext to roll back the anticorruption initiatives. [expand title=”Find out more“]

Still, it is necessary to realize that the fight against corruption is a long-lasting process: even some EU member states cannot boast of an ideal state of affairs in this area. Of course, this does not justify Ukraine, but it shows that the anticorruption activity takes time.

Civil society will continue to put pressure on the Ukrainian authorities to respect its commitments in combating corruption. Apart from the VLAP, the EU has a number of levers of influence on the Ukrainian politicians, should they try to stop anticorruption efforts. The mere risk of reduction of political contacts between Ukraine and the EU could serve as a serious lever that would force the Ukrainian government to act more responsibly with respect to the continuation of reforms, not only in the field of anticorruption.

It should be noted that while implementing the VLAP, Ukraine has not only established and launched new anticorruption agencies, but also made significant progress in the reforms in other areas – particularly in the matter of issuing new secure documents (travel passports and ID-cards), migration management, and integrated border management. [/expand]

Fear #6:

The abolition of visas for Ukrainians must be tied to the introduction of a new, more stringent mechanism of suspending visa-free regime

The European Union has the right to introduce any new rules, including a more stringent mechanism for suspending visa-free regime, and Ukrainians understand the political importance of such changes.

Cars in a queue on a Ukraine-Poland border, May 2016. Photo from:
Cars in a queue on a Ukraine-Poland border, May 2016. Photo from:

The current mechanism also allows the EU to restore the visa regime in case of serious migration risks. Today it is proposed to simplify this procedure. However, new rules will apply also to those states that have been granted the visa-free regime before. Thus, there is no need to postpone the decision on Ukraine, only because a new mechanism is being prepared.

Meanwhile, the migration crisis proves that no visa barrier is an obstacle for the mass inflow of migrants. At the same time, the visa regime presupposes strict responsibility of the third countries and helps to combat illegal migration and its consequences. [expand title=”Find out more“]

Back in 2008, the EU-Ukraine readmission agreement, which envisages the return of migrants to Ukraine, came into force. The European Union has not yet complained about the way Ukraine implements this agreement. In 2010-2015, under this agreement, the Ukrainian side has admitted 3,081 people from the EU, including 1,869 citizens of Ukraine (61%), 626 citizens of CIS member states (20%), and 586 citizens of other countries (19%). 353 people have been transferred to the EU in 5 years.

According to Frontex (European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union), out of all existing migration routes, the EU gets the smallest number of illegal immigrants across its eastern borders. For comparison, only 213 illegal border crossings to EU countries across the eastern border have been registered in the first three months of 2016; during the same period, 157,019 people have penetrated the EU through the Eastern Mediterranean route, and another 112,477 people – across the Western Balkans. That is, in 740 and 528 times more respectively! [/expand]

Fear # 7:

Liberalization of the visa regime will negatively affect Ukraine itself, because the main lever of influence on the government concerning reform implementation will disappear

Failure or even delay in granting a visa-free regime to Ukraine might reduce the leverage of EU on the reforms implementation. If the EU postpones the decision on visa liberalization for Ukraine, it will lead to the loss of credibility of the EU as a responsible partner.

Activist calling the Parliament to adopt anti-discrimination law demanded by the Visa Liberalization Action Plan, November 2015. Photo by: RIAnovosti
Activist calling the Parliament to adopt anti-discrimination law demanded by the Visa Liberalization Action Plan, November 2015. Photo by: RIAnovosti

Some political groups will use this as a pretext to suspend further implementation of reforms initiated within the VLAP. As a result of the crisis of confidence, politicians will lose their interest in further EU recommendations. Refusal from quick visa liberalization is particularly dangerous for the ongoing anticorruption reforms.

Read also: Ukrainian civic society pressures MPs to adopt EU visa-liberalization laws

The statement concerning the loss of leverage is also incorrect, as the EU Council has already announced its intention to introduce a mechanism of post-monitoring and control over the observance of the VLAP requirements by Ukraine after the liberalization of the visa regime.

Currently, under the pressure of the EU, Ukraine is introducing a system of electronic declaration of assets of public officials. The forces opposed to these reforms might use the inconsistency of the EU to postpone the introduction for an indefinite period of time. [expand title=”Find out more“]

The post-monitoring mechanism should encompass several levels of the EU response in case Ukraine violates the already fulfilled requirements of the VLAP – from political warning up to the suspension of the visa-free regime. However, development of the post-monitoring mechanism should not be a reason for delaying visa-free regime, because this will cause negative effects described above (loss of confidence).

Other levers of influence on Ukraine with regard to reforms implementation include: the risk of reducing political contacts that are important for the Ukrainian elite and the image of Ukraine, given a complicated security situation in the region; financial support programs tied to specific reform progress (European Investment Bank loans, macro-financial aid, technical assistance, etc.).

Finally, the aim of the EU is not to monitor the progress of reforms in Ukraine permanently, but to develop an influential and capable civil society. The institutes of civil society will continue to monitor the Ukrainian authorities to prevent any rollback of the reforms. The public sector also counts on further support of such initiatives by the EU: this tandem has already demonstrated its effectiveness over the past two years. Granting a visa-free regime will become a symbol of recognition of reformists’ efforts to change Ukraine. [/expand]

Fear # 8:

Ukraine does not control a part of its territory, so there is a risk of smuggling and human trafficking through Ukraine to the EU

The areas beyond control of the Ukrainian government (parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the Crimean Autonomous Republic) make up only 7% of the territory of Ukraine. In two years after the Revolution of Dignity and the beginning of the Russian aggression, Ukraine has significantly increased its military potential and reformed the police and the Border Guard Service to ensure security and reliability of its borders.

Ukraine's new National Police. Photo: Ukrinform
Ukraine’s new National Police. Photo: Ukrinform

Human trafficking was, indeed, one of the key challenges facing Ukraine, but measures taken to increase public awareness, improve the effectiveness of law enforcement bodies, and provide assistance to the victims led to a radical decrease in its volumes. In recent years, the number of registered crimes pertaining to human trafficking has fallen sharply, while the number of sentences increased. This demonstrates the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies towards combating human trafficking.

The European Commission reports show that the EU also highly appreciates the efforts of the Ukrainian government to combat this phenomenon.

Fear # 9:

Too few Ukrainians have biometric passports. Therefore, we can say that visa-free regime is not that important to most Ukrainians

This myth contradicts other fears of the EU citizens. After all, if few Ukrainians have biometric passports, the influx of migrants is not to be expected. In fact, the number of Ukrainians with biometric passports is gradually increasing. The issue of the new type of passports started only in early 2015. As of April 2016, 2,26 million passports were issued, of which 1,05 million are biometric.

People waiting if a queue to apply for the Schengen visa at the Poland's Consulate in Lviv.
People waiting if a queue to apply for the Schengen visa at the Poland’s Consulate in Lviv.

The results of the latest opinion polls in Ukraine show that the visa-free regime is important to 57% of Ukrainians. This is a position of the absolute majority of the residents in the western (80%) and central (64%) regions of Ukraine. If the visa-free regime with the EU is introduced in 2016, from 18% of the citizens (residents of Donbas) to 45% (in the Western regions) will be ready to use it for short-term travel to the Schengen countries.[expand title=”Find out more“]

It should also be taken into account that some Ukrainians do not hurry to apply for biometric passports for a simple reason: why spend money on biometrics, if it is not clear when the EU will allow visa-free travel?

A large number of Ukrainians use long-term Schengen visas obtained in recent years, so they have no urgent need to apply for new passports. It is noteworthy that over the last year only 1,23 million of Ukrainian citizens applied for Schengen visas. This figure actually matches the number of citizens with biometric passports.

Meanwhile, the visa-free regime is important not only from the practical point of view (to facilitate travel), but also from political one – for many citizens and politicians it is a symbol of desire (or unwillingness) of the EU to deepen cooperation with Ukraine and the readiness of the EU to fulfill its obligations, as has already been mentioned.[/expand]

Fear #10:

Ukraine has been implementing reforms not for the sake of a visa-free regime, while now it does not understand the importance of changes and is dependent on external influence

Ukrainians do understand the importance of reforms and the role of their own efforts. One of the latest IWP opinion polls showed a responsible attitude of the citizens of Ukraine to the reforms. When asked “What should the government do if the EU does not give Ukraine the prospect of membership?”, the largest group of respondents – 46% – chose the option “First reforms, then talking about the EU.”

After systematic and persistent public pressure, the Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin was dismissed. Photo:
After systematic and persistent public pressure, the Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin was dismissed. Photo:

However, in the times of foreign aggression and economic crisis it is important for the Ukrainians to see signals of support which will further inspire them to work. The more quickly the reforms are implemented in Ukraine, the more stable will the entire European continent become. Ukraine is already turning into a reform success story: yet, with external support, these changes will be implemented more quickly and efficiently than without it.

Read also: Ukraine’s civil society calls on the EU to proceed with visa liberalization

Unfortunately, there are some politicians and political groups in Ukraine opposed to the changes that threaten their wealth and income. Ignoring public support of reforms, they will use every opportunity to campaign for the rollback of these reforms. Therefore, both the general public, and the pro-European politicians need support of the EU to effectively counter populist appeals.

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