Getting visa-free regime with the EU has opened up opportunities for Ukraine to seek tools for further integration.
What could become a logical continuation of visa-free regime, with its practical advantages and a clear algorithm of the tasks?
How to maintain the progress of reforms achieved through the move to establish a visa-free regime? What new tasks can we achieve, using the experience of visa liberalization, in particular for the further integration with the EU?
Often, the strive towards visa liberalization is considered a locomotive moving in only one direction, where visa-free regime is a single and final stop, after which the track disappears.
Instead, reforms implemented for the “locomotive of a visa-free regime” can serve as a launch for a new and ambitious format for cooperation with the EU.
One of these new European integration projects, with a higher degree of complexity, but no less attractive than visa-free regime, is an association with the Schengen area.
What is the Schengen zone?
Experienced travelers associate the territory of Schengen zone with a free autobahn from the east of Poland to the shores of Portugal. Indeed, within the Schengen area, any person, regardless of nationality, can cross the internal borders without any checks.
From here, popular stories about how you can wake up at home in Belgium and have a breakfast in a cafe nearby, which will be located in the Netherlands. Just to say, today 1.7 million people in Europe live in one country and work in another.
Schengen became an important step towards a united Europe, allowing for the full realization of the free movement of people, transport and goods. However, the abolition of internal borders inevitably leads to a strengthening of the regime of external borders. Thus, the last expansion of the Schengen countries in 2007, which included Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – favorite destinations for Ukrainian travellers – has led to a complication of visa requirements for these countries.
In order to compensate for the negative effects of enlargement, the European Union launched a dialogue with Ukraine on simplifying the process of obtaining Schengen visas.
Building Schengen for the sake of economic prosperity and security of the EU, the authors have taken care to design a solid foundation for their creation, which became a close law-enforcement and border cooperation. For effective communication, all Schengen countries are connected to the Schengen Information System (SIS), which allows the competent authorities to exchange information, for example, about persons wanted for terrorism and other serious crimes, or about stolen vehicles and identification documents.
The exchange of information and enhanced cooperation between law enforcement agencies of participating countries are aimed at risk prevention. Cooperation in the field of justice allows for rapid extradition of offenders and transfer of criminal decisions between the Schengen countries.
The main legal source of Schengen process is Schengen Convention of 1990, while the Schengen Border Code and the EU Visa Code are used to regulate entry of third-country nationals into Schengen territory.
These two legal documents are well known to Ukrainians. Before the abolition of the visa regime with the EU in June last year, all those who crossed the border with the EU should have received visas in accordance with the regulations of the Visa Code. At the same time, the rules of the Code on Borders apply to citizens to this day, regardless of whether the country still requires a visa or does not require one.
Designing Schengen area
How was this unique configuration formed? Today, Schengen area includes twenty-two EU Member States and four non-EU European countries – Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Iceland.
At the same time, all countries of Schengen area, with the exception of Switzerland, unite under the umbrella of the European Economic Area (EEA), which allows citizens not only to move freely, but also to work and live anywhere within the EEA. Currently, the EEA consists of 30 countries, including all EU Member States (with the exception of Croatia) and three members of the European Free Trade Association (Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein).
In addition, most of these countries are part of the Customs Union, which abolished customs controls and introduced a common foreign trade policy.
At heart of all these relations is economic integration, which contributed to the emergence of four freedoms of single market – free movement of people, capital, goods and services. It was on the foundation of economic cooperation that the mutual abolition of internal borders within the Schengen zone was adopted, which allowed citizens full access to all four EU freedoms.
Countries that have experience in participating in different types of EU projects are, to a greater or lesser extent, involved in creating standards and criteria on which Schengen area is based. Thus, by fulfilling the technical conditions for visa-free regime, Ukraine has upgraded the standards in key policy areas, in particular in strengthening horizontal cooperation of security agencies and emergence of new forms of communication with partners from the EU.
The prototype of Schengen security concept is the concept of integrated border management, which is being actively implemented in Ukraine since the start of visa-free regime. Sharing data with different agencies that are tasked with protecting the borders, systematic cooperation of Ukrainian government with Interpol regarding security issues with documents, mutual effort with the border services of neighboring EU countries through joint border checks and joint patrolling – this is just part of the list of changes made by Ukraine on its way to visa-free regime.
Elite Club or Open Space?
Since its creation, Schengen has maintained a balance between free movement and security, openness to change, status of the elite club and prospects of new expansions.
On the one hand, we can find successful examples in Schengen history of the integration of entire groups of new countries, even such non-members of the European Union as Norway or Iceland.
On the other hand, there are other examples of EU countries that have fought to be part of Schengen area for decades, but still remain at its doorstep. The reasons for failure are different and depend on both degree of compliance with Schengen criteria and confidence of other EU countries, as well as the readiness of the newcomers to share high standards of living together.
So, for example, Cyprus, which has been a member of the EU since 2004, cannot join Schengen area because of island’s division and existence of northern Cyprus, unrecognized by any country other than Turkey.
Similarly, Bulgaria and Romania, which have been members of the EU since 2007, have not yet joined Schengen area because of doubts the other Schengen members have regarding the lack of effective mechanisms to combat corruption and crime in those countries. Opening the borders is based on trust and it is very difficult to earn, partly due to bid corruption scandals.
Although the path of Bulgaria and Romania to Schengen is still long, they are far ahead of Ukraine.
Is Ukraine near or far away?
Geographically, western borders of Ukraine are borders of EU. Therefore, there is a need to talk about the proximity of Ukrainian policies to Schengen criteria based on experience of other countries.
To understand the current state of Ukrainian transition to association with Schengen will require reviewing national plans of countries that have experience in implementing the Schengen criteria. The algorithm of signing an association agreement with Schengen depends on various conditions, both political and technical, that can influence the readiness of Schengen to another expansion.
Therefore, a review of the conditions of accession based on examples of different countries will allow a thorough analysis of our own potential.
When Ukraine was moving towards a visa-free regime, we relied on the experience of the Western Balkans, so now we can find valuable information about the process of becoming part of Schengen area from Romania’s experience.
Even the preliminary review of the Romanian plan indicates that Ukraine is on the right track.
Most of the criteria for the plan relate to tasks in the field of public order and security that are in line with the Visa Liberalization Action Plan (2010-2016). For example, Romania faced the challenge of implementing a pilot project on the issuance of new biometric documents. For Ukraine, this task is already not relevant, since from 2010, Ukrainians began to issue foreign biometric passports, and from 2016 – internal ID-card passports.
Ukraine is also demonstrating progress in adopting proper visa policies and strengthening border management and law enforcement cooperation, all of which could be a reliable springboard for the further implementation of the Schengen criteria. For example, Ukrainian consular authorities are already issuing visas similar to those in the Schengen area (types B, C, D), the cost of visa fees in Ukraine is also closer to the Schengen standard, and the existing infrastructure at the border, in the long run, will allow Ukraine to join VIS and Eurodac.
The move towards achieving association is possible through the development of a multi-stage integration plan, where the ultimate goal will remain open for a long time.
Following the introduction of Kyiv’s first legislative phase of the Schengen deal, a political dialogue may begin to form a long-term algorithm for allowing Ukraine to sign an association agreement to join Schengen area.
Iryna Sushko, Kateryna Kulchytska, Pavlo Kravchuk, Europe without Barriers
First published at European Pravda on February 14, 2018