European Union makes visits more difficult for Russians

(CNN) — The European Union agreed to reduce the number of new visas available to Russian citizens, but stopped short of a outright travel ban at the block.

EU foreign ministers decided on Wednesday to completely suspend a visa facilitation agreement between the European Union and Russia that gives Russians preferential treatment when applying for an EU visa. The measure is part of the broader package of sanctions imposed by the bloc on Russia for its war against Ukraine.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told a press conference after the ministerial meeting in Prague that the decision “will drastically reduce the number of new visas issued by member states of EU” as the process would become more complicated and take longer.

The deal will still need to be approved by all member states at the European Council, the EU body made up of heads of state and government.

Borrell said the measure was necessary because there has been a “substantial increase in border crossings from Russia into neighboring states” since mid-July, which has become “a security risk to those states.”

“We saw many Russians traveling for leisure and shopping like there was no war raging in Ukraine,” Borrell said. “It can’t be business as usual,” he added.

Visas were already limited to certain categories of Russian nationals, and many Russian officials and figures close to the Kremlin were banned from entering the bloc.

The agreement to suspend the visa facilitation program was a compromise after the The 27-member bloc failed to introduce a total visa ban, proposed by some Eastern European, Baltic and Nordic states. The Czech Republic, Latvia and Finland have already taken action to prevent Russians from traveling to the EU, while Estonia even banned Russians who already had visas from entering the country.

But in a memo released ahead of the meeting, France and Germany urged no major changes to EU visa policy, “to avoid fueling the Russian narrative and triggering rallying effects. unintentional around the flag and/or alienating future generations”. .”

“While understanding the concerns of some member states in this context, we should not underestimate the transformative power of the experience of living in democratic systems,” the note read.

Speaking ahead of the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers on Wednesday, Borrell said the issue of a visa ban was “the most important concrete topic on the table”.

“It has been quietly discussed during this week,” he said, but added that there were different positions on the issue among member states.

“We cannot afford to appear disunited on such an important thing, namely the interpersonal relations between Russian society and the people of Europe,” Borrell said, adding that EU visa policies “should reflect that. and continue to allow person-to-person contacts in the EU with Russian nationals who are not connected to the Russian government.”

In a tweet on Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he had met Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra in Prague and thanked him “for his principled stance on the need to restrict travel by Russians to the EU”.

But the divisions remained on the issue after the meeting.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on Wednesday that several member states, including his country, “raised their voices” against a blanket visa ban. But Estonia said it and its neighbors would consider moving forward with their own restrictions.

In a statement, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said he supported ending the visa facilitation agreement between the EU and Russia, but that “it alone would not be enough”.

“Until we reach an agreement on how to restrict the entry of Russian nationals into the European Union, Estonia and other countries that share a border with Russia and Belarus will consider a ban national visa restrictions or border crossing restrictions for Russian nationals with EU visas,” Reinsalu said in the statement posted on the Foreign Ministry’s website.

Moscow had already announced that it would retaliate if the EU decided to ban visas for Russian nationals. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday that such a decision would be a “very serious decision that can be directed against our citizens.”

“Such decisions cannot go unanswered,” he added.

CNN’s James Frater and Alex Hardie contributed to this article.

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