EU foreign ministers have agreed to suspend a preferential visa regime with Russia that has been in effect since 2007 and to allow neighbouring states to impose even tougher restrictions, the EU's top diplomat Josep Borrel announced on August 31 after two days of informal talks in Prague.
“We have seen many Russians travelling for leisure and shopping as if no war was raging in Ukraine,” Borrell said. “Member states considered that we are not business as usual. It cannot be business as usual.”
The decision comes amid increased calls from some EU members to completely ban Russian tourists in the EU as long as Russia continues to conduct its military invasion of Ukraine.
With EU airspace remaining shut down for Russian airlines, land crossings into the Baltic States, Finland and Poland have become the major influx points of Russian nationals holding Schengen visas. Since the invasion of Ukraine over 0.7mn Russians crossed over into the EU states bordering Russia, which has now been recognised as a security risk.
The Baltic States, Finland and Poland have stopped issuing visas and Estonia has even cancelled valid visas it has already granted. However, they have experienced higher number of Russians entering their countries using visas issued by other members of the passport-free Schengen area.
The five countries called for a EU-wide ban on Russians, while Germany and France urged moderation. Unanimity is required for the imposition of stronger sanctions.
The five states could now prepare national-level bans on Russians entering the countries until the EU works out a common solution to significantly reduce the number of Russian citizens entering the Schengen zone.
As a first measure, cancelling the preferential visa regime will make issuing Schengen visas to Russian nationals more expensive and longer, and is expected to reduce the number of visas issued significantly. The agreement between Russia and the EU to simplify the issuing of visas for nationals was ratified by Russia in March 2007 and concerns visas for stays of no more than 90 days within a 180-day period.
Borrell noted that visas will be issued on an individual basis and especially to certain categories of citizens, as the EU does not want to cut off Russians who disagree with the military actions in Ukraine and civil society representatives.
The question of how to treat millions of issued Schengen visas already issued to Russians remains open and will now be reviewed by the European Commission.
Borrel accepted that the Baltic States, Finland and Poland could take unilateral measures. "We recognised that these countries could take measures on a national level to prohibit entry into the European Union across their border," he said.
“It was acknowledged that we have a possibility to look for national or regional solutions on how to ensure that our national security issues are being met on the border,” said Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, after the meeting, the Financial Times reported. “And now what needs to be done . . . is to find those solutions.”