The European Union and Russia are moving towards a deal that could allow up to 15,000 Russian officials to travel freely around the EU.
Germany has withdrawn its objection to the idea of visa-free travel for Russian officials, which for much of the past year had been the major obstacle to an update of an EU-Russia visa-facilitation agreement dating from 2006. It is now the only issue, says Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the EU.
The agreement would require the support of a qualified majority of EU member states. That became much more likely on 6 March after Germany and Luxembourg said they now supported the idea.
However, the number of Russians who would enjoy visa-free access to the EU remains an issue. After a visit to Moscow on Monday (11 March), Stefano Manservisi, the European Commission’s director-general for home affairs, said that the number of holders issued with a service passport must be “reduced to a meaningful number”. He did not elaborate.
Around 180,000 Russians are service passport holders, but Russia is pushing for around 15,000 of those to be included under the scheme. This compares with about 2,000 Ukrainians whose service passports should give them entry to the EU under an agreement reached in June (that agreement awaits ratification).
The Commission says that there are around 145,000 holders of service passports in the EU. It did not say how many it wants to be afforded visa-free access to Russia.
The college of European commissioners will hold a joint session with the Russian government in Moscow next Thursday (21 March), raising the possibility, one official said, of an agreement being reached there. That would enable the EU’s government leaders, who will discuss relations with Russia during this week’s European Council (14-15 March), to sign off on a deal at either their May or June summit.
Chizhov said he hoped that agreement on visa waivers would “serve as an incentive to speed up the process” of abolishing visas altogether – and that it would not, as “some in the Euro-centric media here suggest”, “be conceived of as a trade-off for procrastinating with the abolition talks”. Russia and the EU started in December 2011 on a step-by-step process intended to lead to the lifting of visas, but few steps have been taken.
In November, Anvar Azimov, the Russian diplomat leading visa talks, said that Russia needed a breakthrough in 2013 and threatened “retaliation” that would be “adequate and asymmetric” if no agreement on visa abolition were reached by the time of the winter Olympics in Sochi next March. In February, after a meeting with Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Russia dropped that threat.
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