Visa-free access for Ukrainian citizens to the European Union came within reach late Wednesday when EU lawmakers struck a deal to strengthen an “emergency brake” that could pause the access if needed.
The EU’s 28 member states said they would approve the travel perk as long as the European Parliament passed a stronger rule allowing for a temporary pause to the measure if required. Parliament announced the informal deal with member countries on Thursday in a press statement. That would pave the way for a parliamentary vote as soon as this week.
The two former Soviet republics are seeking to move further away from their former master Moscow and closer to the West but have grown frustrated that the EU was failing to deliver. After last year’s migration crisis, EU governments had grown nervous of popular reaction against a move to make visits easier for 45 million Ukrainians, as well as 5 million Georgians.
Late-night talks involving EU member states and the European Parliament had reached a compromise on the terms of a mechanism that can be used to suspend the visa-free schemes in emergencies. Under the so-called suspension mechanism, a member state can ask the EU to put visa-free travel on hold in the event of a surge in migrants from the country in question, a substantial increase in unfounded applications for asylum, or trouble returning people under agreed readmission procedures.
Ukraine sees visa-free travel to the EU as part of a geopolitical tussle with Russia over the ex-Soviet states’ Western aspirations, which Moscow opposes. The issue of fostering closer ties with the EU was at the heart of mass street protests in Kiev that toppled a Moscow-allied president there in early 2014. Moscow responded by annexing Crimea from Kiev that March and unrest then spread to eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed militias took up arms against Kiev government troops in a conflict that killed more than 9,500 and remains unresolved.
Georgia was at the heart of international tensions in 2008 when a five-day war between Tbilisi and Moscow in August led to the previous sharp decline in ties between Russia and the West.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive, officially proposed lifting visa requirements for Ukraine in April. Under the plan, EU citizens would be able to travel to Ukraine and Ukrainians to the EU, for a period of stay of 90 days in any 180-day period without a visa.