EU agrees in principle on visa-free travel for Ukrainians

Ireland and UK exempt from allowing Ukrainian nationals to visit without visa

 Petro Poroshenko with European Council president Donald Tusk on Thursday: The Ukrainian president described a trade agreement with the EU as “a symbol of the fight of our country for our European future”.  Photograph: EPA/Stephanie Lecocq

Petro Poroshenko with European Council president Donald Tusk on Thursday: The Ukrainian president described a trade agreement with the EU as “a symbol of the fight of our country for our European future”. Photograph: EPA/Stephanie Lecocq

 

The European Union has agreed to accelerate visa liberalisation for Ukrainian citizens at a summit, but it urged the country to continue reform measures in order to tackle corruption.

Thursday’s Brussels summit took place against a background of growing concern in Kiev about Russia’s role in the region following the election of Donald Trump. It was attended by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who urged his EU partners to follow through on their promise of visa-free travel for Ukraine’s citizens.

Member states have in principle agreed to offer Ukraine visa-free travel to the EU for 90 days of a 180-day period, but the issue has been held up in the EU legislative system as negotiations continue between the European Council and Parliament.

Ireland and Britain will not be subject to the new regime, and will continue to apply their own national legislation to Ukrainian nationals looking to visit either country.

European Council president Donald Tusk said he was confident the issue could be resolved by the end of the year, stressing that its delay was down to internal EU matters rather than any fault on the part of Ukraine.

Denied reports

Mr Tusk also denied reports that France wanted to block the agreement amid concerns that granting 40 million Ukrainian citizens visa-free access to the EU would be politically unpalatable ahead of next year’s French presidential election.

“I am happy that all EU member states decided that Ukraine is ready for a visa-free regime,” he said at a post-summit press conference alongside Mr Poroshenko and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.  

“This decision is a recognition of Ukraine’s agreement in meeting European standards . . . We highly appreciate the efforts of the Ukrainian government in implementing broad-scaled reforms in extremely difficult circumstances.”

Mr Poroshenko said Ukraine remained as committed to Europe as ever, and had met the 144 conditions set out by the EU for visa liberalisation.

“We would like to have full assurances that the visa liberalisation regime will be provided to Ukraine immediately after the institutional negotiations have taken place,” he said.

Relations between Brussels and Kiev have also been complicated by the recent referendum in the Netherlands, which resulted in Dutch voters blocking an EU-Ukraine trade pact.

While the trade agreement has been applied provisionally, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte is trying to secure a number of assurances before next month’s EU summit that would allow the parliament to ratify the agreement. This may include a commitment not to sanction EU membership for Ukraine or give further financial assistance to Kiev.

Mr Tusk said he was confident a compromise could be reached before the summit in Brussels.

Referencing the fact that the Maidan protests in Kiev three years ago were sparked by the decision of the then Ukrainian government not to sign the trade agreement, Mr Poroshenko described the trade pact as “a symbol of new Ukraine, a symbol of the fight of our country for our European future”.

Sanctions continue

Despite frustration in Brussels at the rate of reforms in Ukraine and recent evidence of corruption, a mini-summit of EU leaders, convened last week in Berlin to coincide with the visit of US president Barack Obama, confirmed that the EU would maintain sanctions against Russia and demand that Moscow meet the terms of the Minsk agreement.

The Russian sanctions are up for renewal in January, with a decision likely to be formally taken at the EU summit on December 15th-16th.

Mr Poroshenko said he had spoken to Mr Trump in recent days and was confident that US policy towards Ukraine would not change with the incoming administration.

The president-elect has publicly voiced his admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin, sparking fears in former Soviet countries of a shift in US foreign policy towards Moscow.