EU visa liberalization, Eastern Partnership countries and Russia: challenges and outcomes


In recent years, the massive inflow of refugees to the European Union has conspicuously exposed the crucial role of neighbouring countries in migration flows to the EU, either as countries of origin (as has been the case for Syria over the past few years) or transit for migrants on their way to Europe. Therefore, while the EU pursues its migration policy worldwide, it places a particular emphasis on its eastern and southern fringes.

The EU seeks to act as a driver of change in its vicinity to prevent the emergence of ‘new dividing lines’ across the continent and simultaneously ‘reinforcing stability and security’ in adjacent areas (European Neighbourhood Policy created in 2004). For post-Soviet countries, a visa-free regime is the biggest incentive that the EU can offer in the short-term. Therefore, it constitutes a powerful EU leverage over the reform process in countries like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova or Armenia. Visa liberalization has also emerged as a prominent issue in the agenda of cooperation with Russia. Until cooperation was frozen in response to the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine, EU actors shared the view that the visa dialogue is a long-term process and an opportunity per se to raise issues related to human rights and democracy with their Russian counterparts.

While visa liberalization is a major expectation of Eastern neighbours, the EU’s visa policy is fraught with tensions between two potentially competing objectives: on the one hand, the transformation of the partner countries through the promotion of core values (such as the rule of law, democracy and human rights) and people-to-people contacts; and on the other hand, the pursuance of the EU’s security interests in its neighbourhood, that has emerged as a buffer zone playing a crucial role in keeping the irregular migrants outside the EU’s borders.

In essence, the EU’s policy mirrors a (potentially swinging) pendulum between normative and security drivers. Intra-EU dynamics (in particular, EU actors’ preferences and bargaining among them) frame the initial balance between normative and security objectives in the formulation of the visa liberalization agenda. Whereas for the European Parliament and eastern EU member states this agenda should be used to transform Eastern partners and to scrutinize human rights compliance, some other EU member states (e.g. France and the Netherlands) prioritize security issues. In light of the differences between other EU actors (especially within the Council), the technical and monitoring role of the Commission is pivotal, especially at key stages of the visa liberalization.

However, while the substance of EU demands predominantly mirrors security concerns, interaction with the partner countries and adjustments to the regional context have significantly altered the balance between normative and security objectives by triggering a shift towards the former. Since 2014, the EU has indeed used the visa liberalization process as a major instrument to sanction Russia’s actions in Ukraine in violation of international law. With Eastern Partnership countries like Georgia and Ukraine, the EU (whatever the security concerns raised by its member states) has been cautious about not delaying further the visa liberalization process, as this would entail huge political costs for the elites and may undermine support for European integration in the partner countries. This interplay calls for analysing EU external policies as dynamic processes that are shaped through shifting interactions between EU actors and third countries.


Sandra Fernandes is Assistant Professor at the University of Minho in the Department of International Relations and Public Administration (School of Economics and Management). She is Deputy-Director of the Department, Head of the BA in International Relations and Head of the MA in International Relations. She is also a full member of the Research Center of Political Science [CICP] at UMinho. Her research interests are in the field of international relations with a focus on European Studies, Post-Soviet Studies, EU-Russia relations, Foreign Policy Analysis and Security Studies. She is a specialist on Europe-Russia political and security relations.

Laure Delcour is scientific coordinator and research fellow of the EU FP7 CASCADE project at the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme. Her research interests focus on the diffusion and reception of EU norms, policy and institutional templates in the Eastern neighbourhood and on region-building in the post-Soviet area. She is currently a Principal investigator under a French-UK (ANR-ESRC) research project analysing the EU’s influence on domestic change in the Eastern neighbourhood. She is also a Visiting Professor at the College of Europe (EU International Relations Department).

Their recent article ‘Visa liberalization processes in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood: understanding policy outcomes’ was published online by CRIA here

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