Brussels Behind the Scenes: Paying by visa

Brussels Behind the Scenes: Paying by visa

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES

Weekly analysis and untold stories

With SAM MORGAN

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Paying by visa

Russians may soon be barred from entering EU countries after the latest chapter in the ongoing Ukraine war saga opened up this week. The idea to stop everyday Russian citizens from travelling across borders has its merits but has to be implemented wisely.

EU sanctions have banned high-profile Russians from entering the bloc for a number of months. Top members of the Kremlin inner circle, business leaders and even an F1 driver have been issued with travel bans or restrictions.

A no-flight policy, which has generally been adhered to by the 27 member states, also means that Russians are not entering the EU by plane. There are three land borders though – Finland, Estonia and Latvia – where border crossings have continued.

Russian travel companies have even offered holiday packages that include a transfer to Helsinki, Tallinn or Riga airport with onward flights to other European countries. This kind of activity may soon come to an end.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


This week, Finland and Estonia’s prime ministers both agreed that tourist visas should no longer be issued to Russian citizens. Estonia later decided to stop admitting Russians and urged other countries to follow its lead. That decision takes effect next week.

EU members are now actively discussing this issue and although the European Commission insists it does not plan to propose a full entry ban yet, it may come onto the table when a next round of sanctions is being hashed out.

The Czech Republic's EU presidency will push for a visa ban in the coming weeks and months. But more backroom diplomacy needs to be done before an agreement can be brokered. Some countries have their doubts; Germany’s Olaf Scholz has said he “has a hard time with this idea” because “it is Putin’s war”.

Punishing ordinary people for the – in this case, literal – crimes of their government or state is generally an uncomfortable prospect.

Comparisons have already been made with Donald Trump’s entry ban on citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. An executive order that was at the time referred to by its critics as the “Muslim ban”.

But that is a false equivalence. The mooted ban on Russian travellers would target citizens of a country that is the aggressor in a war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and left cities in ruins.

It would not target people, even covertly, based on their religion or beliefs, as was the case with Trump’s executive order. Scholz is right in that this is Putin’s war, but he could not have launched it without popular support.

Even taking opinion polls out of Russia with a big handful of salt, the results paint a picture of a country that mostly believes it is in the right and fighting a war where it is not the bad guy.

Putin’s presidential apparatus has admittedly captured most of the media and other levers that influence public thought, including the education system, but we are not talking about an Orwellian dystopia. VPNs and contacts with the outside world exist.

There is an argument to be made that Russians should be allowed to travel to the west to see how free and liberal and lovely everything is, to demonstrate how restricted it is back home.

But that does not seem to have worked for the last thirty years, so why should it now?

If the EU does manage to rally around an entry ban then it has to be designed well, with no loopholes but plenty of flexibility to facilitate the travel of Russian citizens that really need it.

Military personnel that no longer want to fight in the conflict, civil society members and everyday people that are persecuted by the state need to be guaranteed safe avenues that they can use to get to the west.

This might be asking a lot. The EU has struggled to put together a humane migration policy in recent years on its southern borders, so expecting a competent system along its eastern frontier might be a mistake. But we have to try.

Travel broadens horizons

Ultimately, tourism is not a fundamental human right. It was uncomfortable enough to see the EU and some governments bend over backwards mid-pandemic to “save the summer” and get people travelling again.

The EPP political group dipped into that same well earlier this year to “save the summer” once again for motorists wanting to vacation but who were hit by the high fuel prices that have been caused by Russia’s invasion.

That is why this is an easy win for governments and the EU if they can design an entry ban that cuts off Russians that do not desperately need to make it across European borders.

Unilateral action should be avoided. Estonia’s decision to go it alone is risky but will probably pay off. However, instances of cultural institutions denying Russian citizens access, see this example in France, are dangerous.

Remember as well that citizens of Kosovo, a country that is right in the heart of the EU’s neighbourhood and which aims to apply for membership of the bloc before the end of the year, still do not enjoy visa liberalisation.

Indeed, Kosovar passports place lower in global rankings than Russian and Belarussian travel documents. EU countries have different requirements for applications that sometimes require paperwork to be submitted in other countries.

Spain does not even allow Kosovars that are eventually granted a Schengen visa to enter the country, due to its long-standing refusal to recognise its independence from Serbia. Kosovars have to get a residence permit or travel documents from another EU member first.

Limiting travel is never a pleasant thought in this big, beautiful world of ours. But it is quickly becoming apparent that Russians should not be allowed this luxury until they end their war and make amends for the crimes that have been committed.

In just a short few days since the idea entered the public forum, it is clear that it has touched a nerve in Russia. Estonian PM Kaja Kallas calls it the Kremlin elite’s “Achilles Heel”, as the prospect of travel to Europe being nixed slowly becomes more likely.

We are frequently reminded that the EU’s most potent weapon is its soft power. Time to use it.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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