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EU: Commission Eases Border Traffic With New Neighbors

The European Union will soon offer its new Eastern neighbors easier travel across the union's external borders after enlargement. A proposal adopted yesterday by the European Commission says citizens of countries such as Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus living close to the EU's new borders could be issued easier-to-acquire visas that would allow simplified travel in the bloc's border regions.

Brussels, 2 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union -- keen to show that enlargement is not about erecting new barriers -- is considering easing visa restrictions for local cross-border traffic on its new borders.

Yesterday, the European Commission adopted a proposal that envisages a new type of "local" visa for residents of border areas in countries such as Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus who need to travel short distances into the EU.

Typically, the new visa would be issued for people who have relatives or property on the other side of the border with the EU. It will also help facilitate short-distance commercial travel between countries such as Poland and Ukraine.

Laura Corrado is a European Commission expert on visa issues. She said yesterday the new visa will be distinct from the so-called Schengen visa, which allows travel in the whole of Western Europe covered by the Schengen accord.

"[The new visa] would be a special visa," she says. "It would also be distinguished -- so we envisage -- [by being] stamped [with] the letter 'L' -- for local border traffic -- so that the border guard knows what kind of visa it is and what the person is allowed to do. One thing that is very important is that this visa has a validity limited to the border area of the issuing member state." She says it's not valid in the entire Schengen area, but only in the border area of the state that issued it. "If a person is found with this visa somewhere else [they] would be sent back," she says, "because this is not a Schengen visa."

Corrado said the "L" visa would have the same security features as a full Schengen visa.

The EC proposal says the new visa -- valid for one to five years -- would be issued free of charge or at a significantly reduced price. It would allow the bearer to spend no more than seven consecutive days on EU territory, the total not exceeding three months in any six-month period. The visa would typically allow travel within 50 kilometers of the bloc's external border.

The visas would not be stamped at every crossing. Commission officials say that would be "impractical" if a traveler crossed the border more than once a day. This relative absence of controls would be balanced, however, by thorough background checks. EU border officials would also be encouraged to quiz travelers on the reasons for and the extent of their journeys.

The EC says the proposal was worked out in close consultation with the new member states, most of which already allow easier cross-border travel for residents of border areas. One of the aims of the initiative is to establish a single EU-wide basis for such schemes.

The proposal says new member states can modify the terms of the new legislation depending on local conditions. For example, they can restrict holders of the new visa to remain, for example, only 20 kilometers from the border instead of the usual 50 kilometers.

Citizens of the "new neighbors" that are exempted from the visa requirement -- Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria -- will in future only need an ID card to cross the border for local travel within the EU. The ID card must show, however, that the bearer resides in an area bordering the EU.

Corrado, who presented the plan to reporters in Brussels yesterday, said the terms will be offered to the EU's future eastern neighbors on the assumption that similarly placed EU citizens can enjoy similar advantages.

"We put an article in the proposal saying that when an [EU] member state negotiates this kind of agreement with a third country, it has to take into account the need to ensure reciprocity for [EU] citizens wishing to go to the border areas of the third country [in question] -- that [is], Union citizens and third-country nationals legally resident in that [EU] member state," Corrado said. "This is one of the conditions -- the member state has to ensure that there is reciprocal treatment. This is normally what is done when you negotiate an agreement."

The proposal will now go before EU member states, which must approve it before it can become law. Commission officials say the new visa should be in place by the time the new members join on 1 May 2004.