The European Union aims to cancel visa regime with Russia in the future, said Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who currently holds presidency in EU, last week. Yet, these words were said by European officials on a number of occasions before, but nothing has changed. This made Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov request the Europeans to name specific timeframes.
Lately, the issue of easing the visa requirements between Russia and the EU became one of the central ones in the relations between Moscow and Brussels. In December of last year, Franco Frattini, Italy’s Foreign Affairs Minister, shocked everyone with saying that visa regime with Russia may be abolished as early as in 2010. Yet, the heads of the European Commission kept silence, and the claim of the Italian Minister remained a mere position of his country.
Every time the talks on the subject start, Russian diplomats have to state that negotiations are difficult because Europe keeps finding new excuses to postpone the discussion. Although there is an agreement regarding simplification of travel for members of official delegations, sportsmen, scientists and public figures, as the percentage of the population using those regulations is minuscule.
When Sweden held presidency during the last six months of 2009, there were no expectations that the things would get moving. In the last few years, the Swedish government has been having anti-Russian attitudes in nearly all areas. The procedure of obtaining a Swedish visa is one of the most complicated among all the countries of the Schengen Area.
The situation changed in early 2010 due to two reasons. First, on December 19, 2009, visa regime between the EU and Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia was cancelled. Russia had all reasons to believe that after making this decision in regard to Slavic Orthodox countries, the EU would start a similar conversation with Russia.
The second reason was the transition of the EU presidency from Sweden to Spain. In the recent years, Russia had no serious issues with Spain. The two countries did not support independence of Kosovo. Besides, unlike the Swedes, the Spanish did not express harsh criticism of Russia during the war in South Ossetia. Economic cooperation between Russia and Spain is getting stronger.
When it comes to the issue of the cancellation of the visa regime with Russia, Spain is more amiable than its EU colleagues. The Spanish government stated on a number of occasions that the issue can be solved positively. These words are backed up by action, as Spanish consulates create fewer problems for Russians in obtaining visas and even do not mind granting multiple entry visas. It is not surprising that Russian speech is often heard in Barcelona, Madrid, and Canary and Balearic Islands.
On January 12, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos arrived in Moscow to meet Sergey Lavrov. Russia is the first country that Moratinos has visited on behalf of Spain’s role as the chair of the EU presidency. The visa regime issue was the main issue during the negotiation of the two ministers.
Moratinos said Spain wished to make another step towards more expansive relations between the EU and Russia, including inter-cultural relations. He stressed the need in creating conditions for abolishing visa regime in the future.
He said that the two counties needed to proceed with the process and in the course of Spain’s presidency at least create a map with future prospects of visa restrictions’ abolishment. “Our final goal is the abolition of visas,” Moratinos said.
Yet, the Spanish Minister did not state any specific timeframe for a possible cancellation of visas despite the request from his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
“We touched upon the issue of fixed terms of transition to visa-free regime. The goal has to be stated clearly. We would like to agree upon a clear, transparent road map that will allow us to move towards this goal. United Europe is impossible without freedom of travel, “Lavrov emphasized.
“We are hoping that in the first six months of 2010, in the period of Spanish presidency, we will achieve progress on a number of issues, including the development of further cooperation in the talks regarding the new basic agreement, visa-free regime and the strengthening of the energy dialogue," said the Russian Minister.
Spanish attitude is exciting. Yet, there are things that are out of their control and they simply cannot provide details on the timeframe of visa cancellation. The unwillingness of traditional anti-Russia countries like Latvia and Estonia to introduce visa-free regime is not the only issue. If the EU presses hard enough, the Baltic countries will have to agree with a decision made in Brussels since they are too weak both politically and economically.
Most likely, it has to do with the position of four countries, Germany, France, Italy and Finland, the only country of "Old Europe" bordering Russia. Italians are the only ones of these four who are benevolent towards visa-free regime. In the case with Germany and France, their Foreign Affairs departments do not seem to mind, while Ministries of Internal Affairs are concerned with a possible inflow of the “Russian Mafia.”
The issue with Finland is more complicated. In December 2009, Foreign Minister of Finland Alexander Stubb openly stated that it was not the right time to discuss the abolishment of visa regime. He requested that Russia eases obtaining of multiple entry visas for Europeans. He did not say anything about doing the same in return.
Only EU countries are able to say when the visa regime will be abolished or at least simplified. It is obvious that the issue is acute, and it is time to back up words with actions.