EU ministers attending the European Council on Monday, February 27 have put the final stamp on visa-free travel for Georgia. The ministers have also approved the visa waiver suspension mechanism allowing member states to temporarily re-introduce the visa requirements.
The decision about visa-free travel will apply for short stay of Georgians holding biometric passports, which means that although they will be able to travel for business or for pleasure freely, Georgian citizens will still need visas to work, study and live in the EU for more than 90 days in any 180-day period.
Despite this final act by the Council, February 27 will not be the day on which Georgia achieves visa free travel, since more time is needed to conclude the technical preparations needed to secure the smooth implementation of the decision.
It is still impossible to determine the exact date on which the visa requirements for Georgia will be actually lifted. Next the decision needs to be signed by the presidents of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani and of the European Council Donald Tusk, which is expected to happen at official signing ceremonies. The signing at European Parliament has already been scheduled for March 1 and the signing by Mr. Tusk is expected to happen without delay. The decision then has to be published in the Official Journal of the EU. The regulations do not envision a deadline by which this publication should take place. 20 days later it should be implemented simultaneously by all EU members, as well as by Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The UK and Ireland are exempt from this simultaneous implementation and may decide on it separately. The visa-free regime will enter in force simultaneously with the visa waiver suspension mechanism.
Why did it take so long
It has been almost 7 years since Georgia and the EU started working on visa-free travel. The EU-Georgia Visa Liberalisation Dialogue was launched on 4 June 2012 and the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan was presented to the Georgian authorities on 25 February 2013. The European Commission produced four reports evaluating the progress made by Tbilisi with the first published in November 2013 and the last in December 2016. After the European Commission proposed free travel to the nation of 3,7 million citizens on 9 March 2016, reporting that all the benchmarks and requirements had been met, it should have been only a matter of formality, but the migration crisis and discussion about similar visa waiver mechanisms for other countries slowed down the process.
Visa-free travel and the “emergency break”
The fact that the Commission’s proposal to lift visa requirements for Georgia was submitted almost at the same time with the proposals for the much bigger Ukraine and Turkey, and the surge of migrants to the EU slowed down the pace with which it was handled by the EU institutions. Although Georgia is not on the migratory routes to Europe, there was not much enthusiasm to drop visas before the European Commission came with a proposal to strengthen its 2013 visa suspension mechanism. The tool allows the temporary reintroduction of visas in the event of migration surges or risks to public security. Initially the revision of the mechanism was crafted as an “emergency break” to ease the concerns of EU members of the accelerated visa liberalisation for Turkey. Visa liberaisation for Turkey is a part of the wider EU-Turkey refugee deal. The adoption of this new suspension mechanism was then bound to the decisions for Georgia and Ukraine, which by the time had already concluded their liberalisation procedures with the Commission. Later the EU member states officially linked the adoption of the two acts, stating that the removal of visas can only enter into force at the same time as the new suspension mechanism. Georgia and Ukraine had to wait for the “emergency break” to be adopted. The suspension mechanism was agreed by the EU member states on 7 December 2016 opening the way for the final decision on Georgia.
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This particular story is about how ordinary Georgians think it will change their lives. The story was produced in Tbilisi, Georgia – 26/11/2016 by GARB TV / Open Media Hub.