Author: Kakha Gogolashvili, Director of EU Studies Center at Rondeli Foundation
The first Report regarding the mechanism for the suspension of visa-free travel by the EU with the third countries, published by the European Commission at the end of December 2017, caused quite a stir in our society as, according to the data of Eurostat, the number of Georgians seeking asylum in the European Union or remaining there illegally has grown after the enactment of the visa-free regime. Earlier, according to the data of Georgian official structures, about 10,000 citizens (6.1%) out of 180,000 travelling to the European Union from March to November 2017, had not returned to Georgia. These citizens, therefore, violated the time limit of entering the Schengen area for three months without visa, which might have shaken the possibility of a long-term, unhindered existence of this regime.
Despite the fact that the European Union makes the decision about granting to third states visa-free regimes unilaterally, through its own internal procedures, the Association Agreement between Georgia and the European Union obligates both parties to simplify the movement of citizens from the territory of one to the other. The Agreement says: “The Parties shall continue to endeavor to enhance mobility of citizens and shall take gradual steps towards the shared objective of a visa-free regime…” This statement guarantees that if Georgia follows the Visa Liberalization Action Plan (VLAP) unwaveringly and continues its reforms in all fields required by VLAP, in the future, it should be possible to fully abolish the requirement of visa for Georgian citizens to enter the European Union. As is well known, as of today, Georgians can only stay in Schengen area visa free for three months out of every six months.
Such a spirit of the Association Agreement practically guarantees that if for some reason the European Union decides to suspend a short-term visa free regime, it will be restored again, as soon as the causes of the suspension are eradicated. As for the development of the visa-free regime and its gradual expansion to long-term visits, in this context the respective provisions of Association Agreement have a “soft” nature – there are no specific dates named or any other details. Hence, its full realization and the pace of development depend upon the dynamics of approximation between Georgia and the European Union, the interests of the Union and active diplomatic efforts from our side. The suspension of the visa free regime, should this happen, will negatively influence at least two of the listed conditions. In such a case, not only the part of the population of Georgia that wants to travel to the European Union will suffer, but also the whole process of development of EU-Georgia relations, especially the pace of the process of liberalization of the movement of citizens.
The visa free regime rapid suspension mechanism modified by the European Union in March 2017 introduced the regular monitoring of performance of the countries that got this regime through visa dialogue, more specifically the candidate and potential candidate countries from the Western Balkans and the Eastern European countries Associated with the European Union. The main purpose of the dialogue was to accelerate the pace of certain reforms in EU partner states. If the reforms determined by the Visa Liberalization Action Plan do not continue and in addition the migration trends from a certain country towards the European Union is worsening, a mechanism could be used which would (temporarily) suspend visa free regime with a country in question.
In what Cases does the European Union Trigger the Quick Suspension Mechanism?
According to the March 2017 amendments to the suspension mechanism of the visa free regime, the procedure can now also be launched upon the request of the European Commission (not just a member state) and the time necessary for the enactment has been reduced significantly. The conditions necessary for triggering the suspension mechanism have also been specified:
- Illegal migration – significant growth of the number (about 50%) of those refused entry to Schengen area or staying longer than allowed;
- Significant increase (about 50%) of the number of people seeking asylum, when the share of granted asylum applications is low (3-4%);
- Weakening of cooperation in the field of readmission from side of a partner country;
- If the security of a member state of the European Union is being harmed due to increased criminal activities by the citizens of a partner country;
- The European Commission also has a right to request the suspension of visa free regime with the countries that do not fulfill the requirements and promises considered during the visa liberalization dialogue.
It should be noted that the requirements listed above are indicative and in any given case, taking the existing threats into account, the decision about the enactment of the suspension mechanism can also be made even if the growth of illegal migration is less than 50%. Same holds true for the share of granted asylum applications for the citizens of a third country. This is explained in the 17 February 2017 joint statement of the European Commission and the Council of the European Union.
The visa free regime suspension mechanism covers 60 countries with which the Union has such regimes. It is usually enacted at the request of one of the member states. The European Commission discusses the request and as a result of the analysis of existing information, it might ask the member state to resolve the issue with a partner country through “peaceful means,” if it considers such a thing to be possible. At the next stage, if the issue is not resolved, the European Commission will formulate a draft decision, which is then considered by the Council of the European Union through ballot, with a majority vote. Within a month from the beginning of the discussion, the Council must either confirm or reject the draft decision through qualified majority. If the decision about the suspension has been made, the visa free regime for a specific country will be suspended for nine months. In this period, the European Commission and member states will continue consultations and negotiations with the partner country regarding the conditions of restoring visa free regime. If, after nine months, the country does not meet the set conditions, the European Commission will make a decision about the postponement of the decision. The visa free regime will only be restored when the European Commission considers (and the member states confirm) that the reasons for its suspension have been eradicated.
Of course, it is important for our citizens to know how the Report of the European Commission assesses Georgia and How Realistic is the Suspension of Visa Free Regime with the European Union in Nearest Future?
According to Eurostat, there was no serious worsening in the data related to the visa free regime with Georgia in the first half of 2017. The table below reflects the trends of major indicators that affect the decision regarding the suspension of the visa free regime. The Report of the European Commission points out that Georgia generally fulfills the obligation taken in terms of the visa liberalization dialogue and continues reforms in the fields of migration and integrated border management, security as well as combating corruption and organized crime. In many fields, Georgia has better results than Albania or Moldova, which are also mentioned in the Report.
|Refusal of Entry to Country||The worsening of this indicator was not noticeable in the first half of 2017. However, the trend was growing in April and May. The most number of refusals was recorded during the entry to Greece, Poland and France.|
|Number of Illegal Migrants||This number in 2015 and 2016 was 5400 and 5200 respectively. The number did not increase significantly in the first half of 2017; however, a sharp increase was recorded in Germany.|
|Asylum Applications||In 2016, the indicator (8,700) grew by 8-9% as compared to the previous year. In the first half of 2017, the trend of growth as compared to the previous year was no longer noticeable; however, the growth compared to the same period of the previous year amounted to 20% in May-June 2017.|
|Share of Approved Asylum Applications||Recognition rate grew in 2016 and reached 6.48%. Same indicator almost did not change in the first half of 2017, amounting to about 6.1%.|
|Return Rate||The rate was 55.9% in 2016. It remained almost the same in 2017.|
The cooperation between the European Union and Georgia in terms of the readmission of migrants is characterized as exemplary. However, it should also be noted that Georgia far exceeds Ukraine and the majority of Western Balkan states in terms of illegal migration. Practically, all Western Balkan states except Albania have better dynamics than Georgia – the number of illegal migrants to the EU is decreeing. The number of asylum seekers shows significant downward trend too. It should also be noted that all assessed countries (Western Balkan states and eight countries of Eastern Europe) except Moldova (48%) have better return rates than Georgia.
The Report also underlines that the criminal activity originating from Georgia is among the highest and fastest growing in Europe, threatening the public tranquility of the EU citizens. The usage of the territory of Georgia for various sorts of criminal transit, such as money laundering, transit of psychotropic medications and illegal migrants, is also considered to be a serious problem.
Instead of Conclusion
At this stage, fortunately, conditions have not formed that would lead the European Commission or any member state to demand the suspension of visa free travel with our country. However, we should consider the risks that could grow if the economic and social background of the country does not improve. The number of those seeking asylum to the European Union might increase sharply in the nearest future, as we are one of the top countries discussed in the Report in this regard. We should also pay attention to the trends of all these indicators not only with regard to the European Union in general but in the cases of specific member states as well, given the fact that the worsening of these indicators in the case of a specific country might cause it to demand suspending visa free regime for Georgia. In this regard, negative trends are noticeable in the cases of Germany, France and Greece and also in part with Italy and Poland, which is manifested in the refusals to entry in the country, growth of the number of asylum seekers and others. We should pay a very close attention to the statistics of legal violations and criminal activities of Georgian citizens in the European Union. In this regard, Germany, France and Spain often state their concern. If appropriate measures are not taken, in the future these issues might also become grounds for the suspension of visa free regime with the European Union.