Even though the EU had hopes to exchange visa free travel for a stronger commitment to fight organised crime and corruption in the Eastern Partnership countries, it now admits these hopes didn’t come true.
The first report on the implementation of the tailor-made monitoring mechanism on visa liberalisation released by the European Commission shows there is no direct link between free travel and the success of reforms in the countries involved.
While the formal requirements for visa liberalisation, which include also anticorruption and anti-money laundering measures, are confirmed to be in place everywhere, Moldova and Ukraine – the first and the last Eastern Partners to receive free travel for their citizens, are urged to take “immediate actions” to speed up reforms. Georgia, which only got into the EU’s visa waiver program in the spring of 2017, on the other hand, is considered sustainable and advancing well on all benchmarks.
On the wave of the migration crisis the EU revised the Visa Suspension Mechanism which complements its visa waiver program, extending grounds for suspension and shortening deadlines for fulfilling requirements. It gave the European Commission the power to trigger temporary reintroduction of visas in case of serious breach of the criteria and to monitor developments in the countries on its visa free list.
Moldova is lagging behind
Among the three Eastern Neighbourhood countries with free travel to the Schengen zone, the situation in Moldova is particularly worrying, with visible decline on almost all important benchmarks.
Entry refusals are up by 71%, illegal stays in the EU have increased by 89% and asylum applications by Moldovan citizens have almost doubled since 2015. At the same time, the acceptance rate of asylum seekers fell from 11 to 2 percent, the report says.
Since the lifting of visas in April 2014, more than 980,000 Moldovan citizens have made 2,7 million trips to the EU in total. The ascending trend of refusals to enter the Schengen borders which has been present during the entire period, has intensified even more in the first half of 2017. The number of Moldovans illegally staying in the EU has increased from 2245 in 2015 to 7660 in 2016, and climbed by another 40% in the first six months of 2017.
The number of asylum applications by Moldovan citizens kept growing during the peak of the migration crisis, with Germany alone registering 3405 new cases in 2016. While the return orders have almost tripled, effective returns have dropped from 60 to 48 percent. However, this was not due to the lack of cooperation from the Moldavian authorities but rather because of Germany dealing with more pressing returns of migrants from the Middle East and Asia, the report says.
Serious delays and political interference are reported in anticorruption and anti-money laundering measures, also part of the visa-free requirements. The European Commission warns that the lack of progress, especially in the fight against high-level corruption, is putting at risk the fulfilment of these requirements and calls for ‘immediate actions’ including new anti-money laundering legislation and securing independence of National Integrity Authority and Criminal Assets Recovery Agency (CARA). The report is pushing for withdrawal of the so called ‘business package’ and ‘capital liberalisation law’, considered harmful and weakening the anticorruption effort and the powers of the National Anticorruption Centre of Moldova.
The EU considers necessary extending CARA’s mandate to deal with crimes like drugs and human trafficking, which are currently out of the scope of the agency.
Limited improvement is reported in the field of security and public order, with Russian organised crime turning Moldova into a transit country for money laundering and a gateway for illegal capital into the EU. The EU police agency warns that Moldovan criminal groups are a ‘substantial threat’ for increased drugs and tobacco trafficking and are expanding their operations from Poland to France and from Austria to Germany.
Ukraine’s anticorruption effort unconvincing
Only six months into the EU visa waver system, Ukraine is also urged to take ‘immediate action’ to ensure ‘full implementation and sustainability of past reforms’ fighting corruption. While admitting some progress has been made in anticorruption reforms, the EC names the recent introduction of tight time limits for pre-trail investigations, and the public disclosure of National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) undercover investigations as serious drawbacks. The draft law on dismissal of NABU’s chief and the lack of conviction cases in NABU and the Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecution, are also of serious concern.
The European Commission warns against the postponement of the introduction of verification of public officials’ e-declarations and the lack of automated access to the database.
Increasing pressure on civil society, including through criminal investigations and physical attacks, are additional worrying developments, the report says.
Organised crime groups are smuggling tobacco and drugs using the Caucasus route via Ukraine to Europe, the report says. The list of dangers for the EU security also includes hackers, and smuggling of fire arms from the war zones in the East into the EU.
Georgia is advancing, but there are skeletons in the wardrobe
Even after Georgia had ticked all the benchmarks it had to wait long for the EU to adapt its visa suspension rules before getting visa-free travel. However, nine months later the European Commission is satisfied by the outcome.
From March to November 2017, 173 396 Georgians have travelled visa free to Schengen and the government has advanced on the ‘implementation of visa liberalisation benchmarks in a sustained manner’, the report says.
The electronic system of public servants’ asset declarations is in place (although the verification mechanism is still missing). The legislation on conflict of interest and corruption is updated and the cooperation with Europol is working. However legislative reforms in the anti-discrimination law are still pending after three years of delay; and a monitoring agency on drugs is still to be created.
The work on improving migration management is still ongoing and the outcome is uneven, the report says, signalling that refused entries have doubled. Over 5000 Georgians are staying illegally in the EU, with half of the cases reported in Germany and Greece. At 6,5%, the recognition rate of asylum climes is the lowest among the three EaP countries.
Georgia has signed readmission agreements with Denmark, Belarus and Moldova immediately after getting the visa waiver agreement and is negotiating similar deals with at least eight other destination countries. The electronic readmission case management system (RCMS) to exchange documents on people to be returned from Europe, is used by 17 EU members with positive results, the report finds.
The skeleton in Georgia’s wardrobe is organised crime. Although the Commission admits authorities are demonstrating a ‘serious commitment’, Georgian crime groups are described as ‘significant and having sustained impact for the EU’, especially in France, Greece, Italy, Spain and in Germany. Georgian citizens are among the most frequent nationalities involved in serious and organised crime in Europe. Georgian criminals ‘are highly mobile and are mainly involved in organised property crime, corruption, document fraud, extortion and racketeering’, the report warns.
These groups are particularly threatening to the EU because their activities are often dismissed as “low intensity crime”, their control of the criminal markets is gradually increasing, and they cooperate with other non-EU organised criminal groups, the report also notes.
Georgian criminal groups are also increasingly involved in laundering illicit proceeds generated by others in the EU and are involved in fraud schemes in Israel, China and Hong Kong.
Although international cooperation has improved, the Commission still notes the effort from the authorities is yet to become ‘sustained and consolidated’. Georgia has to prioritise the practical cooperation with Europol and to reform its intelligence services ‘as a matter of priority’, the report suggests. Further progress is expected also on money laundering legislation and on the creation of an asset recovery office to deal with the illegal income from criminal activities.
First Report under the Visa Suspension Mechanism
European Commission Staff Working Document accompanying the Visa Suspension Mechanism Report
OMH Article: European Council Adopts Visa Free Travel for Ukrainians to the EU, Entry into Force Expected by Mid-June
OMH Article: Final Council Approval of Visa-Free Travel for Georgia Expected on 27 February