The Central and East European (CEE) countries aspiring to accede to the European Union (EU) have been harmonizing their visa policies with Union standards. The EU has made obligatory the full adoption of the visa acquis (a set of regulations and practices) by the CEE countries without an option for derogation, even though such an option has been granted to some of the EU members - the UK, Ireland and Denmark. The CEE countries are under the obligation to comply with the EU visa regulations even if this requires the imposition of visas on nationals of states which have never before been under such a duty and where there are close historic, economic, and family links. At the same time, the EU has encouraged cross-border cooperation and has urged the CEE countries to establish and foster good bilateral relations with their neighbors. However, the adoption of the EU visa policy by the CEE countries has had the undesirable effect of creating obstacles to cross-border movement of people (and goods) in the region and has led to political, economic, and social tensions rather than to the desired good neighborly relations. Ironically, the implementation of the EU visa acquis has, in fact, jeopardized what Helen Wallace has called "a kind of central European acquis," which fostered constructive forms of multilateralism and bilateralism that have been vastly important in West European integration.

New Borders Between Old Neighbors

The EU's requirement for adoption of the visa acquis demonstrates a marked difference between the eastern enlargement of the Union and previous expansion rounds. The individual visa policies of the EU member states became a matter of common EU concern only after the Amsterdam Treaty (1997) and, therefore, were not part of the membership requirements extended to previous applicants. A protocol annexed to the Amsterdam Treaty integrated the previously intergovernmental Schengen visa acquis into the EU framework, thus making it a legal part of the overall EU acquis. The EU visa regulation, adopted in March 2001, applies to 134 countries, whose citizens are required to obtain visas for crossing the external borders of the Union.

A direct consequence of the implementation of the EU visa policy by the accession states has been the virtual creation of new borders among old neighbors in Eastern Europe. Restrictive visa policies have ranked among the short-term goals of the CEE countries since the signing of the EU Accession Partnerships in March 1998. For example, regarding its travel arrangements with Belarus, Lithuania acknowledged that closing down its "simplified" border crossings into Belarus in 1999 was the price of joining the EU. These border crossings were used by people living in the border area between Belarus and Lithuania who received a permit to stay in the territory of the neighboring state for one week. In 2000, candidate countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia and Romania have, at the request of the EU, introduced visas for the non-candidate neighboring countries of Russia, Moldova and Ukraine.

The impact of the EU visa policy on relations between old neighbors and the resulting emergence of virtual new borders is most visible in the case of Poland and Ukraine. The improvement of relations between Poland and Ukraine over the past decade is a crucial factor for regional stability. Given the historical difficulties between the two countries, this improvement has been as important for the region as the Franco-German cooperation after the end of the World War II was for stability in Western Europe. In June 1999, Polish President Kwasniewski spoke out against the creation of border barriers in the EU integration process and warned that what he described as 'a new iron curtain' at Poland's eastern border would harm millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe, for whom the possibility of visiting a neighboring country is a measure of their "normality, trust and good will in relations among states." In the same year, at an international conference in Yalta, titled "Toward an integrated Europe of the 21st century without dividing lines," Ukrainian President Kuchma expressed his concern that there was a real fear that the old iron curtain could be replaced with a different, "more humane, but no less dangerous paper curtain." Ukrainians in Ukraine will be at a disadvantage compared to Ukrainian nationals in Poland, as the latter will enjoy the provision of free movement across the territory of an enlarged EU.

Poland has postponed the introduction of visas for citizens of Russia and Belarus until the end of 2002, and for Ukraine until 2003. However, the tightening of border controls after the new Polish visa law came into force in January 1998, has led to a reduction of cross- border crossings along the border between the two countries. The effects of the new rules and regulations introduced in 1997-1999 have had significant economic consequences. Ukraine is Poland's third largest trade partner after Germany and Russia. According to a report by the Center for European Policy Studies, cross-border traffic fell by almost 50 percent and, in southeast Poland, the already high level of unemployment rose, from 10 percent to 14 percent. Polish traders protested against the restrictions on border crossing. In 1998, residents of the Polish borderland, who make their living by cross-border trading, blocked the largest border crossing in Bezledy-Bagrationovsk, forming a seven-km-long line in front of it for twenty-five hours. The new visa policy of Poland was also met with concern by student organizations. In an open letter, entitled "Visa policy: students for freedom of movement: co-operation between Ukrainian and Polish students endangered," the European Student Association stated that the visa restrictions would seriously harm activities of the association in both Ukraine, where there are eleven divisions of the association, and Poland, with thirteen divisions.

Hungary committed itself to adopting the EU's visa policy in the fall of 1999. In 2001, Hungary introduced visas for citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belarus, Moldova, Macedonia and Russia, but has resisted imposing visa restrictions on its immediate neighbors because of the sizeable Hungarian minority living in these countries. Its constitution states that Hungary feels responsible for Hungarians nationals living outside the country's borders and openly promotes their relations with Hungary. To preserve Hungary's special links with its nationals after accession, in June 2001, the Hungarian parliament adopted the Status Law, granting special rights to Hungarians abroad. Ethnic Hungarians who are citizens of Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine or one of the former Yugoslav countries can travel to and work in Hungary without visas. The law, however, has been criticized as discriminating against non- Hungarian citizens in neighboring states while ensuring potential benefits and a smooth entry into the EU for ethnic Hungarians after Hungary's accession.

To ensure their removal from the EU visa list, Bulgaria and Romania have imposed on non-candidate states the same restrictions against which they had, until recently, protested. Unlike nationals of the rest of the CEE countries involved in enlargement negotiations, Bulgarian (until April 2001), and Romanian citizens (until January 2002) were required to obtain visas to enter EU territory and were subject to time-consuming, expensive, and often demeaning visa issuing procedures. In this context, the harmonization with the EU visa regime was a requirement not only for EU membership but also to ensure the removal of Bulgaria and Romania from the EU visa list. Consequently, in order to avoid a reversal of the EU decision of December 2000 for visa free travel, the Bulgarian government took immediate steps for further harmonization with the EU visa regime and ended the 1978 Bulgarian agreement with the former USSR on visa-free travel. Bulgaria then imposed visas for Ukrainian and Russian citizens in October 2001.

Obtaining visas for Bulgaria will be a problem for Russian citizens as there are only two consular offices on the territory of the Russian Federation - in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russians visiting Bulgaria come mostly from remote areas such as Ural, Ekaterininburg and Tumen, and the logistical obstacles related to visa procedures would make tourist agencies reluctant to offer organized trips to Bulgaria. Yet, tourism with Russia is the most dynamic part of the Bulgarian tourist industry and showed a 105 percent increase in 2000 compared to the same period in 1999.

In 1999, even while subject to the EU visa regime itself, the Bulgarian government introduced visas for citizens of Moldova, despite the large number of ethnic Bulgarians living in Moldova. Similarly, in order to enjoy visa free travel, Romania was obliged to abandon its existent visa-free agreement with Moldova and impose mandatory visas on Moldovans, since the country is not an EU accession candidate. Prior to this development, an agreement between Romania and Moldova allowed both countries' nationals to cross the common border without a passport, traveling only on an identity card.

The adoption of the EU visa policy by the CEE countries is part of the overall eastern enlargement process, which sets the framework for relations between the EU's current and future member states. However, the impact of this seemingly technical process is far wider than the countries involved in enlargement negotiations. Indeed, the harmonization of the CEE candidates' visa polices with Union regulations affects neighboring countries in eastern and southeast Europe with various institutional links with the EU (such as partnership and cooperation agreements as well as stabilization and association agreements), which do not necessarily, or in the short-term, lead to EU membership. For instance, Hungary is bordered by a EU member state (Austria), EU candidates (Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia), potential EU members (Croatia and Yugoslavia) and a country that might never become a candidate (Ukraine). These countries are bound by geography to remain neighbors in Europe, regardless of their status vis-Ö-vis the EU. The EU enlargement policy, whose purpose is the integration of new members, should not be conducted at the expense of isolating neighbors, especially when these are unstable and weak states on the fringe of Europe.

With regard to the implementation of the EU visa policy, there are some feasible solutions that might cushion some of the negative consequences outlined above. Such immediate policy options are: the opening of new consulates, providing more consular staff, issuing of multiple-entry visas and one-day visas, avoiding repeated visits to the consulates for visa applications, and same-day granting of visas. In the long run, to promote and achieve a unified EU 'neighborhood' - not strictly enlargement - policy, the EU visa list could be modified to remove visa restrictions for nationals of certain countries, including Ukraine and Russia.

Elena Jileva spoke at an EES Discussion on December 12, 2001. The above is a summary of her presentation. Meeting Report #245.