Talks in Prague this week over Russian citizens entering the European Union ended with a flexible solution that will decrease the number of visas issued and make it harder for those with relevant travel documents to enter.
The visa issue, which has divided the EU over the summer, is likely to rumble on though as several key questions remain
Moreover, the passions and emotions triggered by the debate show that it will be harder for Brussels to agree on restrictive measures in the future, meant to pressure the Kremlin and punish the country for its war on Ukraine.
After two days of talks between EU foreign ministers in the Czech capital, which included dividing ministers into smaller groups with the hope of bridging political divides, EU foreign ministers finally agreed on a compromise on August 31.
Firstly, they agreed to suspend the visa facilitation agreement that the bloc agreed with Russia in 2007. The agreement was already partly suspended shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, making it harder for people connected to the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin to get visas to the EU's Schengen zone, where countries have abolished border controls, but sparing so-called "ordinary Russian citizens." Now those "ordinary Russians" might fare a little worse, as visas will become more expensive, take longer to process, and require more paperwork for pretty much everyone.
These further restrictions, however, were not enough to pacify the three Baltic states, Finland, and Poland, which have seen over half a million Russians cross their borders with Schengen visas since the war started in February. Those visas were often issued by other EU member states and were the only way Russians could circumvent the airspace ban on Russian flights to the EU that was implemented in March.
Those countries wanted the EU to take a firmer line with a full or near-full visa ban granting only a few exceptions, such as for humanitarian reasons. As a concession to those countries, ministers in Prague also signed off on a sentence in the agreement that looks rather innocuous at first but actually could end up carrying significant weight: "Given the challenging implications for the bordering countries, we acknowledge that measures can be taken at [a] national level to restrict entry into the EU in conformity with the EU Schengen border code."
This doesn't automatically stop Russians entering at the borders of these five countries, but it does offer the affected countries a chance to cook up a regional solution with the EU's blessing.
A regional solution could come sooner rather than later. On September 2, relevant officials from the quintet of countries directly bordering Russia are set to meet with the aim of coming up with a common approach by next week. An EU source with knowledge of the debate but who wasn't authorized to speak on the matter said that a potential solution could include case-by-case scrutiny of every single Russian attempting to cross their borders. In practice, this means that what once might have taken a few minutes to cross the border from Russia will now take much longer and will, perhaps intentionally, create bigger bottlenecks.
"No tunnels, no corridors" was the mantra repeated by officials over the last few days of negotiations, emphasizing that no exemptions on Russia's borders will be made for visas issued from other western EU countries. Crucially, the visa issue will now be treated like a regional problem, with the Baltic states, Finland, and Poland still having the power to outright deny entry to any individual, even one holding a valid visa.
"National security concerns" will be the official justification, although in truth the reasons are much more political. Echoing public sentiments, politicians in the countries concerned have objected publicly to images of Russians partying in their capitals over the summer and Maseratis with Russian license plates parked on their streets, all while Ukrainians are bombed out of their homes. Latvians will hold parliamentary elections in October, and the Finns and Estonians will go to the polls in spring 2023, and their respective governments are keen not to let visas for Russians become a defining electoral issue.
Despite this week's compromise, questions still remain. Will the other 22 countries that don't have a land border with Russia follow suit in slowing down the Russian visa process? It's unlikely, as they're getting fewer applications anyway and getting into Schengen will be even more of a challenge.
It's likely that all member states will be more vigilant about letting Russians in, but it might become something of a nonissue as the summer holiday season comes to an end. Russia has also kicked out so many EU diplomats at various consulates around the country that it's much harder for Russians to even apply. Belgium announced recently that all their visa-issuing officials had now left the country.
Leaving The Door Open
Focusing on tourists was always something of a misnomer, as there is no such thing in the EU as a "tourist visa." EU member states can issue Schengen visas for up to 90 days in any 180-day period, a so-called category C visa. These can of course be used by tourists but also by businessmen or Russian truck drivers working for EU companies, transport links that the Baltic states are keen to keep open.
As of now, there is also the issue of the estimated 10-12 million valid visas, issued by various EU countries, that are currently held by Russians. Those visas won't be cancelled and even if EU countries bordering Russia will slow down border entries, Russians can still reach the bloc via Serbia or Turkey, who have not instituted visa bans.
Not to mention that leaving the door open for Russian visitors is exactly what some countries want. The French-German discussion paper that was issued ahead of the meeting was pretty clear about that: "We need to strategically fight for the hearts and minds of the Russian population," it argued. And then, in a thinly veiled swipe at the Russia hawks, the paper underlined that "while understanding the concerns of some member states in this context, we should not underestimate the transformative power of experiencing life in democratic systems at first-hand, especially for future generations." In other words: let them in, so they can see how we live.
The debate over granting visas is eclipsed by much bigger discussions over sanctions and energy policy. The outcome in Prague was essentially to allow a regional solution to a problem that the 27 member states couldn't agree on.
That wouldn't work with sanctions, where unanimity among EU members is needed. And with rising energy bills and galloping inflation across the continent, unanimity on sanctions will be even more difficult to achieve.