Schengen ambitions of Ukraine: transition from rhetoric to actions

Schengen

Less than a month from now Ukraine will celebrate a year of getting a visa-free regime. This test year passed well for Ukraine, without violations of harsh security and migration rules of the suspension mechanism and receiving a generally positive assessment from the European Commission of implementation of visa-free travel. As you know, success inspires to move forward, so completion of the visa liberalization project presented a new question for Ukrainian society – what do we do next? What could be a logical extension of the idea of ​​abolishing visa barriers with the EU, which for the first time united the majority of Ukrainian politicians and civil society representatives. While the experts continue to debate about what should become the next successful project in the field of European integration, President Poroshenko announces new foreign policy benchmarks, including prospects of the Schengen Association.

What were the President and his team guided by presenting a new vision for Ukraine-EU relations? Was it emotional overheating and «dizziness from success», or vice versa, an objective assessment of our country’s capabilities, multiplied by the experience and new knowledge gained during visa liberalization? It was both, most likely. However, the deed is done and Ukraine has a new strategic goal, which has a strong potential for rapprochement with the EU, both at the institutional level and in the field of interpersonal contacts. The benefits of this project are obvious: achieving of a higher degree of freedom of movement in the Schengen zone and raising the level of security both in the country and at its borders. Thanks to extensive cooperation between law enforcement agencies of Schengen countries, the introduction of SIS electronic security system, which allows the exchange of information about criminals and suspects, cooperation with Interpol and preliminary risk analysis, the level of crime in Schengen countries was significantly reduced, and free movement of people, goods and capital increased. The benefits of Ukraine becoming part of Schengen area are mutually beneficial, as by fulfilling the criteria for Schengen, the EU will have a strong Ukraine with secured borders and a secure situation at heart of the country.

See also: There is no direct threat to visa-free regime with the EU

Yet can we count on support for this initiative within the EU? What new advantages and disadvantages will be discovered on the way to Schengen Association and how to deal with them? We will not be able to cover all the emerging issues within the scope of this article. However, the mere fact that these issues are numerous is a good sign of the gradual transition of a new political benchmark from a purely theoretical perspective to practical discussion.

Ever since Ukrainian “Schengen perspective” was announced, talk about the “ambitious” and “unrealistic” nature of the project started immediately. If the ambitiousness of the project is beyond doubt – all large-scale and long-term projects require courage or even daring, then the stigma of “unrealistic” is a controversial characteristic that artificially narrows the prospects of Ukraine, undermining our country’s experience with visa liberalization, which has already paved the way for closer cooperation with the Schengen.

EU – partners or skeptics?

Migration crisis, threat of terrorism, renewal of control at internal borders, increase of euro-skepticism and economic imbalance between member states have strongly influenced public opinion and approach to enlargement policy in the EU. European Union, embodied by Ambassador Mingarelli, repeatedly rejected the question of Ukraine potentially becoming a member of the Union or the Schengen area. However, one should not place a sign of equality between these perspectives.

First of all, the current official position of the EU is not engraved in stone. Thus, in spite it, the possibility to join Schengen for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova was mentioned by MEPs in a resolution to the Eastern Partnership Summit in the fall of 2017 (519 votes in favor). Secondly, the EU needs new effective leverage to influence the implementation of reforms, which will ultimately result in building safe, democratic and efficient country. Visa-free regime served as a treat, which prompted reforms, and now the EU is left only with a whip of cancellation of visa-free trips, which cannot produce further progress. If Ukraine and the EU would agree to terms of the country’s integration to Schengen area, it would give both sides new tools to influence the course of reforms in different sectors.

Visa recognition

One of the basic requirements for joining Schengen is complete unification of visa policies. Given the remoteness of this prospect for Ukraine, it is hardly worthwhile to talk about full unification, but we can discuss gradual introduction of elements of Schengen visa policy by reviewing experience of other countries.

Recognition of Schengen visas has already become a tool for simplifying visa policies and additional security filter for a number of countries. As of today, at least 15 states (as well as Gibraltar and Kosovo, which is not recognized by Ukraine) have fully or partially allowed holders of Schengen visas to stay on their territory. In this case, some countries recognize Schengen visas unconditionally, while others use them more as an additional security filter.

On the other hand, the EU Quartet (Bulgaria, Romania, Cyprus and Croatia) which has not yet joined Schengen area, recognizes Schengen visas fully and unconditionally, albeit asymmetrically – visas issued by these countries do not allow entry into the territory of the Schengen. At the same time, these four countries have mutual recognition of each other visas: Bulgarian, Cypriot or Croatian visa is the basis for staying in Romania and vice versa.

Another example of the adaptation of the Schengen visa policies are Western Balkans and Georgia, Ukrainian partner on the road to a visa-free regime, which also welcome holders of Schengen visas. Moldova allows entry to citizens of China, Qatar and Kuwait with Schengen visas.

In fact, the majority of Ukraine’s neighbors are already using Schengen system one way or another as part of their own visa policy. Ukraine still has only one element of such integration – the presence of a Schengen visa (along with visas issued by the United States, Britain, Canada, Japan) is the reason for the release from a visa interview for citizens from the “countries of migration risk”. This norm was introduced in new visa application rules that came into force in March 2017 and included a few more steps that lead towards Schengen area: reducing the number of visa types to four (A, B, C, D) and unifying the consular fee.

Based on the experience of its closest neighbors, Ukraine could modify its visa policy with few key amendments in the short term. First step would be to fully or partially recognize Schengen visa as the reason for entry into the territory of Ukraine, which would reduce the pressure on Ukrainian consular system, although this could simultaneously lead to a reduction of consular fees.

The experience of Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus could serve as a basis for similar integration projects on mutual recognition of visas with Ukrainian participation. For example, mutual recognition of visas can be negotiated with Georgia and Moldova, which are united with Ukraine on the way to European integration, successful visa liberalization with the EU and productive cooperation within the framework of the Eastern Partnership. Such negotiations can also be conducted with Serbia, Montenegro and other countries of the Western Balkans. Such visa unions can potentially strengthen Schengen prospects of participating countries, and the experience of integration can be useful when fully integrating into Schengen area.

Integration and cooperation

In June 1985, when preparations for mutual abolition of border control by five signatory states of Schengen Agreement began, border guards were required to conduct only a visual inspection of passenger cars at low speed without stopping them unnecessarily. Travelers were also offered to glue a green disk not less than 8 cm in diameter on their windshields, which would mean something like “I do not transfer anything forbidden or needing declaring, I am aware of the rules and I would adhere to them.”

It is from this declaration of trust between states and citizens Schengen that we know today began. Trust is a cornerstone to which technocrats as well as politicians appeal when talking about Schengen. The fact is that this is not only a concept of ethics, but also a purely functional element of a system that deals with horizontal interagency cooperation within the state, between adjacent departments of different states, and access to databases.

In the long run, integration into Schengen area involves common border protection, close cooperation between law enforcement officers of member states and integration into the Schengen Information System (SIS). Some of this has already been implemented or in works for Ukraine.

Law enforcement

Since 2014, Ukraine is said to have an unprecedented level of cooperation with law enforcement agencies and colleagues from EU countries. Twinning Adaptation Program, EUAM mission, and many cooperation programs in different sectors are worth mentioning. To a large extent this was facilitated by a visa-free regime and a plan of action that preceded it. There was a significant improvement of exchange of databases on stolen and lost documents and cars that are declared wanted. However, there are exceptions. Representatives of EU law enforcement agencies complain about lack of direct cooperation with Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, which remains an extremely closed structure, lagging far behind, for example, Border Guard Service.

Border management

Thanks to visa free regime in Ukraine, the Concept of Integrated Border Management and the Action Plan for its implementation were approved, a significant part of which is devoted to issues of interagency and international cooperation, and their full realization is an element of integration with Schengen. Ukraine is already successfully implementing joint control and joint patrols with colleagues from several neighboring countries, thus gaining experience of such cooperation. In the area of ​​border protection Schengen plan will, nevertheless, have somewhat paradoxical trajectory. With the aim of eliminating borders with western neighbors in the long run, in the nearest future, however, in line with the obligations of the SALW, Ukraine must comprehensively strengthen and develop the western border. Only with a reliable, effective and easy to operate border Ukraine will be able to get rid of the border in future.

Data exchange

Becoming part of SIS is almost the last stage, although this process can also be further subdivided. For example, Britain has limited access to SIS of one type, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania – of the other, and EU members such as Cyprus and Ireland do not have access at all.

Here, while continuing to integrate its databases and adding to the EU/Schengen databases, Ukraine could begin cooperation with the EU on interactions between pre-authorization systems. The EU plans to launch its ETIAS system by 2021, and Ukraine has adopted a document on development of an electronic notification mechanism for foreigners about their intention to visit Ukraine.

Way to Schengen

This is a brief overview of tactical steps that can be taken now on the way to Schengen, but in order to give this path a strategic status a corresponding Roadmap or Action Plan for its implementation needs to be created and verified in strategic documents. One of the first steps for Ukraine could be legislative implementation of Schengen plan. Also a political dialogue with the EU will start that aims to form a long-term algorithm for Ukraine becoming a part of Schengen area. In order not to irritate skeptics from the EU, this may need to be a multi-stage integration plan, where the ultimate goal will remain open for a long time. We must be aware of the fact that it will take a long time for the EU members to even start considering the process of giving Ukraine a Schengen membership.

Implementation of a relevant Schengen integration plan should be accompanied by advocacy work with the EU member states that currently do not demonstrate an understanding and support of Ukrainian “Schengen intentions”. Acceptance of this new direction for European integration of Ukraine by the EU will take place only after member states recognize mutual benefits of this partnership.

Visa liberalization with the EU became relevant to Ukraine when its western borders became eastern borders of the EU and freedom of movement became severely challenged. First talks about visa liberalization with the EU/Schengen began in 2003-2004, under President Kuchma’s administration. Yushchenko’s presidency paved way for enormous diplomatic and political work that ended with the creation of Visa Liberalization Action Plan. However, it was Viktor Yanukovych, who received it at the Ukraine-EU summit in 2010, while implementation of VLAP and adoption of visa-free regime fell on the presidency of Petro Poroshenko.

So “Schengen project”, which is no less extensive and related thematically with visa-free regime, despite originating from political statement of incumbent President, has every chance of being accepted nationwide and surviving political perturbations.

Iryna Sushko, Pavlo Kravchuk, Europe without Barriers

First published in Dzerkalo tyzhnya, №18-19, May 19 2018

Photo: romaniaexperience.com

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