EU foreign ministers agree to suspend visa deal with Russia

Hungary, along with some other member states, opposed a Russian visa ban at a meeting of EU ministers in Prague. PHOTO: REUTERS

BUDAPEST (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - The European Union's foreign ministers agreed Wednesday (Aug 31) to fully suspend a visa facilitation agreement with Russia, making it harder and more costly for Russian citizens to enter the EU.

“We agreed on... full suspension of the European Union-Russia visa facilitation agreement,” he told reporters at the end of a two-day meeting of foreign ministers in Prague.

“This will significantly reduce the number of new visas issued by the EU member states. It’s going to be more difficult, it’s going to take longer,” he said.

Diplomats said the EU ministers could not agree immediately on a blanket ban of travel visas for Russians as member states were split on the issue.

Security risk

Mr Borrell said there had been a substantial increase in border crossings from Russia into neighbouring states since mid-July.

“This has become a security risk for these neighbouring states,” he added. “In addition to that, we have seen many Russians traveling for leisure and shopping as if no war was raging in Ukraine."

He said Hungary, along with some other member states, opposed a Russian visa ban.

"There won't be a general blanket visa ban imposed for Russian citizens," he said. "Several member states have raised their voice against this, including myself."

Eastern and Nordic countries strongly back a tourism ban, while Germany and France have warned their peers it would be counter-productive, saying ordinary Russians should still be allowed access to the West.

Rise in border crossings

During Wednesday’s talks, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky urged his counterparts in the room to stop issuing tourists visas and also ban tourists that are already holding an EU visa, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Mr Lipavsky suggested that further steps to limit tourist traffic from Russia could be included in a new sanctions package.

Baltic states have been pushing for a visa ban amid an influx of Russian tourists crossing into the EU via their borders.Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia said in a joint statement ahead of the meeting that they were considering introducing “national-level temporary measures” to limit the number of Russian citizens entering the bloc and Schengen area across their borders.

Mr Borrell said EU countries have a wide range of measures they can take concerning Russian visa issuance and border controls, as long as they conform with Schengen area rules.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock cautioned against an overly restrictive visa policy before Wednesday’s meeting, saying it was important to target Russian officials and those profiting from war, but to continue allowing others who might not support the regime to travel to Europe.

A discussion paper Germany drafted with France and circulated to member states warned against far-reaching travel restrictions that could feed the Russian narrative.

Moscow vows to retaliate

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday (Aug 30) that if the EU went ahead with a ban on tourist visas for Russians, “this couldn’t be left without a response” by Russia, without elaborating on possible retaliatory moves.

Mr Peskov called proposed measures a “collection of irrationalities bordering on madness”.

With flights banned to and from the EU, Russians have mostly had to enter the bloc by land, primarily through Finland and the Baltic countries. 

Around one million Russian citizens have legally entered the EU since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, with roughly two-thirds entering through the borders of Estonia or Finland, according to the EU’s border agency Frontex.

Once they cross into the EU with a Schengen visa, they are free to travel around the border-free zone within Europe.

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