Author: Giorgi Lomtadze
On June 10, EU Ministers in the Justice and Home Affairs Council discussed the issue of visa liberalization for Georgia. The ministers were unable to come to a decision due to opposition of a number of EU member states. On June 20, the same issue will be discussed by the EU Foreign Affairs Council. If ministers fail to come to a decision during this meeting as well, the finalization of the visa liberalization process may be postponed for several months.
The article presents a procedural overview of the visa liberalization process between Georgia and the European Union and analyzes the possible reasons for its delay.
Visa liberalization talks between Georgia and the EU were launched in June, 2012. In February 2013, the Georgian Government received the Visa Liberalization Action Plan (VLAP) from the European Commission. The European Commission stated that after Georgia fulfills all the VLAP requirements its citizens with biometric passports would be able to make short-term visits (up to 90 days in any 180 day period) visa free to the Schengen area (which includes 22 EU member and 4 non-member states).
According to the fourth and final report by the European Commission on the implementation of VLAP by Georgia, the country had fulfilled all of its obligations. The fact that despite this conclusion some EU member states opposed visa liberalization with Georgia caused confusion and a certain amount of anger among Georgian citizens.
In order to better understand the process, we must look at the institutional structure of the EU, the main institutions responsible for making similar legislative changes, and relevant legislative procedures.
Institutions of the European Union and the Process of Visa Liberalization
The European Union is a major economic and political union of 28 European countries. In its essence, institutions (legislative and executive) and internal arrangement, the European Union functions as a state. The Treaty of Lisbon is the main document for the EU and serves as its constitution. Among other issues the treaty separates the areas of competences of the EU and its member states. This means that the EU has the authority to make and amend laws in a number of policy areas, while in all other cases law-making is done by the legislative bodies of individual EU member states.
The core legislative bodies of the EU are the Council of the European Union (informally referred to as the Council of Ministers) and the European Parliament (EP). The Council of the EU is a body, where all EU member states are represented. Based on the topic under consideration by the Council, each member state selects an authorized representative from its ministries and agencies to participate in the Council. The European Parliament is the only international institution the members of which are elected through a direct universal vote for a 5 year period.
The European Commission is the executive body of the European Union. The European Commission expresses the interests of the EU and does not take instructions from its individual member states. The Commission oversees the implementation of agreements, and regulations and directives approved by the Council of the EU and the European Parliament. In addition, the European Commission has exclusive authority to initiate bills.
Simplification of the visa regime with Georgia requires a change in the Regulation N539/2001 (a normative act) of the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, involving the relocation of Georgia from Annex 1 (list of countries in need of a visa) to Annex 2 (list of countries with visa-free travel).
The Visa Liberalization Procedure
The European Commission submitted the legislative initiative to cancel the visa regime with Georgia on March 9, 2016. This is followed by the Ordinary Legislative Procedure when both the European Parliament and the Council of the EU must discuss and vote on the initiative in order for it get approved.
Finally, after the revised regulation is approved, the change is signed by the President of the European Parliament (Martin Schulz) and the Foreign Minister of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (currently the Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders). The regulation enters into force 20 days after publication.
Procedurally, an initiative may be discussed with a maximum of three hearings, during which the European Parliament and the Council of the EU make relevant changes. However, visa liberalization is usually approved with its first hearing, since the content of the initiative does not require changes.
Discussion of the Initiative in the European Parliament
After the European Commission submits a proposal to the European Parliament, the latter prepares for its evaluation and subsequent voting. The task of evaluating the legislative proposal falls on the competent committee. In the case of visa liberalization, it is the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs - LIBE (Rapporteur Mariya Gabriel - member of the European People's Party, Christian Democrats, Bulgaria). The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) also expresses its opinion on visa liberalization.
After the speaker's report is discussed and approved by the committee, the issue is discussed at the plenary session of the European Parliament, where the legislative amendment is voted upon. Initiatives related to visa liberalization are approved with a simple majority.
On April 26, 2016, the European Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee held the first hearing on the simplification of the visa regime with Georgia. All of the speakers at the committee meeting supported visa liberalization.
All of the major political groups in the European Parliament support visa liberalization with Georgia, which serves as a guarantee of a favorable decision at the plenary session. This is illustrated by the statement made by the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz that Georgia has fulfilled all the necessary criteria for introducing visa liberalization and that the discussion of the issue should not be delayed. Also important is the joint statement of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, according to which, Georgia fulfilled all the necessary conditions for visa liberalization and deserves to be granted visa-free regime with the EU. Even skeptics in the European Parliament (Jaromir Štětina, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski) believe that Georgia deserves visa liberalization; however, they believe the process should be completed after the October elections.
The biggest problem lies in the fact that the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the European Parliament is waiting for the decision of the Council of the European Union on the proposal before it can submit the issue to the plenary session. The Council of the EU has yet to make its decision. The next plenary session is scheduled for July 4-7, followed by a break until September 12. Therefore, if Georgia wishes to complete the visa liberalization process in the summer, the European Parliament must vote on the initiative during its July plenary session. Unfortunately, this is unlikely, given the fact that the Council of the EU has yet to make a decision.
Decision-Making Procedure in the Council of the European Union
Before the initiative is voted upon by the ministers of EU member states, the position of the Council of the EU is prepared in advance by working groups, which then submit the issue to the Committee of Permanent Representatives (Coreper). The decision made by the Committee of Permanent Representatives is then voted upon by the ministers in the relevant field, or the ministers of interior and justice in case of visa liberalization.
Voting is done by qualified majority, meaning that in order to pass the initiative must be supported by 55% of EU member states that represent at least 65% of the EU population.
The Committee of Permanent Representatives held three meetings on Georgia’s visa liberalization, but was unable to come to a decision. Because of this, it was not surprising that on June 10 the EU Foreign Affairs Council was also unable to come to a decision regarding Georgia. The ministers of interior and justice meet once every three months, meaning that the next meeting will be held in October.
The June 20 meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council is the final opportunity for Georgia to receive visa liberalization before the October parliamentary elections. The situation is made even more complicated by the fact that the EU countries such as Germany, Italy, France and Belgium oppose the completion of the process in the Council of the EU. These countries could invoke the blocking minority (at least 4 countries with 35% of the EU population) that would paralyze the Council. Therefore, the decision may not be made until October. However, a promising fact is that the Foreign Affairs Council will be head by Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who has repeatedly expressed her support for granting visa liberalization to Georgia.
Despite the support of two EU institutions - the European Commission and the European Parliament, visa liberalization for Georgia may be delayed until the October parliamentary elections, due to the fact that the Council of the European Union has been unable to come to a decision regarding Georgia.
Reasons for the Delay
The official reason for the delay of the completion of the visa liberalization process is the possibility of an increase in crimes committed by Georgians. This concern was expressed by a number of EU member states; chief among them was Germany, one of the leading countries in the European Union. A few days before the meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, the German media (BILD, DIE WELT, N-TV, SPIEGEL ONLINE) published a series of articles about Georgian criminal groups in Germany. These media reports stated that most burglaries in Germany had been carried out by Georgian criminals.
After the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Georgian Embassy in Germany requested SPIEGEL ONLINE to disclose the data on which the above claim was made, the word ‘most’ in the article was changed to ‘many’.
According to statistics published by Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office, there were a total of 167,136 cases of burglary in Germany in 2015. Among the arrested 17,670 people, 7,096 (40.2%) were foreign citizens. Out of the arrested foreigners only 455 (6.4%) were Georgian citizens.
Source: “Die Kriminalität in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland - Polizeiliche Kriminalstatistik für das Jahr 2015”, Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office, 2015, p. 79.
Considering the fact that the share of crimes committed by Georgians in Germany is low, bringing attention to Georgian criminal groups a few days prior to the Council of the EU meeting was somewhat suspicious. Furthermore, the fact that the above statistics have been available since 2015 means that the German government had plenty of time to raise its concerns at an earlier occasion, which would give the Georgian government enough time to respond to the issue.
This gives rise to suspicions about the existence of some other unofficial reasons for delaying the visa liberalization process. Possible reasons include:
• The current immigration / refugee crisis in Europe
• Possible Russian pressure on EU member states
• EU’s decision to consider the case of Georgia together with Ukraine, Turkey and Kosovo, and to review the suspension mechanism for visa liberalization.
These reasons are all closely linked.
1. The role of the immigration / refugee crisis is significant, because it negatively affects the attitude held by the citizens of EU member states towards allowing an uncontrolled entry for third-country nationals. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than a million refugees have crossed the EU border in 2015. This large wave of refugees has fueled anti-immigrant views in EU member states, leading to increased support of ultra-right-wing parties.
The ruling parties of EU member states have to take into account the attitude of their citizens. This means that the domestic policy agenda influences foreign policy decisions, making visa liberalization difficult. In case of Germany, the refugee crisis has created a rift in the ruling party, between the Christian Democratic Union headed by Angela Merkel and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria headed by Horst Seehofer. It should be noted that Seehofer visited Moscow and met with Vladimir Putin in February 2016.
2. It is also possible that Russia is exerting pressure on EU member states. Some of the ultra-right-wing populist parties are funded by the Kremlin. One such example is the French party National Front, which in 2014 borrowed EUR 9 million from a Czech-Russian bank and plans to borrow an additional 27 million for its 2017 election campaign. The mediator, who made it possible for the party to obtain the loan, is Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, who is currently a member of the European Parliament. Also, as noted above, the leader of one of Germany's leading parties visited Moscow in February, despite objections from Angela Merkel. Also worth noting are Russia’s attempts to destabilize EU member states though information war.
3. Finally, in addition to Georgia, the European Union is also in the middle of liberalizing the visa regime for Turkey, Ukraine and Kosovo. Even though the EU makes visa liberalization decisions separately for each partner country, these processes are concurrent and influence each other.
EU member states are also discussing the mechanism of suspending visa liberalization, which involves the expansion of the list of conditions, on the basis of which visa liberalization can be suspended. The main target of this mechanism is Turkey. On March 18, 2016, an agreement was signed between the EU and Turkey, according to which, Turkey will take back the refugees leaving its territory for the Greek islands, and the EU will fund their way back to Turkey. In exchange for this agreement, the EU promised visa-free travel to Turkey. However, Turkey still has to meet certain requirements (a total of 72) to receive visa-free travel, including the revision of its anti-terrorist legislation, which, according to EU member states, is too broad and is used against political opponents. Ankara refuses to revise its anti-terrorist legislation. For this reason, the EU wishes to wait for the creation of a new mechanism of the suspension of visa liberalization until it grants visa-free travel to the countries under consideration.
Ukraine, like Georgia, has fulfilled its VLAP requirements; however, some concerns were raised regarding Ukrainian as well. Most likely, EU member states do not wish to give preference to any one country by completing the visa liberalization process with them ahead of others.
In conclusion, even though Georgia fulfilled all the requirements set by the Visa Liberalization Action Plan, the process of granting visa-free travel may still be delayed. On June 20, Foreign Ministers of EU member states are scheduled to meet and decide whether or not Georgia gets visa liberalization prior to its October parliamentary elections. Along with Georgia, the EU is conducting visa liberalization processes with Turkey, Ukraine and Kosovo, which hampers Georgia’s chances of being garneted visa-free travel ahead of the other three countries. At the same time, the refugee crisis in Europe and the political sensitivity of visa liberalization with some partner countries creates a high probability that none of the countries under consideration will receive visa-free travel until a new mechanism of suspension of visa liberalization is adopted.
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