EU members split over travel ban against Russians

Members of the European Union are divided over a proposed ban on tourist visas for Russians seeking to enter the 27-nation bloc with France and Germany warning against such a measure.

The Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency, wants to suspend a 2007 deal that eased visa applications for Russian tourists and some European Union members have urged an outright visa ban.

“There is no place for tourism,” said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, who is hosting an informal two-day meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Prague.

But some countries including EU powerhouses Germany and France as well as Hungary, Luxembourg and Austria have raised objections.

“We caution against far-reaching restrictions on our visa policy, in order to prevent feeding the Russian narrative and trigger unintended rallying-around the flag effects and/or estranging future generations,” France and Germany said in a joint memo as reported by the Reuters news agency on Tuesday in advance of the meeting.

Eastern and Nordic countries have strongly backed such a ban, saying that travel to the EU is a privilege, not a right, and that allowing Russians to party on European beaches at a time when their country has invaded Ukraine is unacceptable.

The Kremlin slammed the proposed ban as “irrational”, while Paris and Berlin argued that, six months into the war, the EU should avoid penalising ordinary Russians who might oppose their government’s actions and harbour pro-Western sympathies.

One EU diplomat said divisions on the issue meant an agreement at the two-day meeting of ministers in Prague was unlikely. Member-state top diplomats would need to reach a unanimous agreement to implement a ban, which would be the bloc’s latest action intended to punish Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Marie Dumoulin, director of the Wider Europe Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) said that the negative effect of a blanket visa ban would outdo the moral advantages of such a measure.

“Assuming that a visa ban for Russian tourists would increase the public’s pressure on Russian authorities and bring about a policy change is wishful thinking,” Dumoulin said, noting that less than a third of Russians can travel abroad and when they do, the EU is not their destination.

“A blanket visa ban would stigmatise Russians and play into the hands of the Russian propaganda, which depicts the West as essentially driven by its Russophobia,” she added.

On Sunday, the head of EU foreign policy, Joseph Borell also warned against the move: “I don’t think that to cut the relationship with the Russian civilian population will help and I don’t think that this idea will have the required unanimity,” he said speaking to  Austria’s ORF TV.

As a temporary compromise, ministers might agree in principle on suspending a visa facilitation agreement, which would mean Russians facing a longer procedure and having to pay 80 euros instead of 35 for their EU visa, the diplomat said.

But that may well not be enough for pro-ban countries, especially those bordering Russia, some of which have already individually stopped issuing visas.

“I hope that we will be able to agree on a common European solution that will allow to significantly limit the flow of tourists from Russia to Europe,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in a statement.

“If all 27 EU countries fail to reach an agreement, a regional solution for the countries most affected by the flow of Russian tourists may be sought in the future.”

Finland, which has a long land border with Russia and has said it does not want to become a hub for Russian tourists entering the EU, has sharply cut the number of visas it grants them.

Earlier this month, Estonia closed its border to more than 50,000 Russians with previously issued visas, the first EU country to do so.

“It is very provocative to me that you see Russian men on European beaches in southern Europe and at the same time Ukrainian men between 18 and 60 years cannot even leave their country, but have to fight for their freedom,” Denmark’s Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said last week.

Describing the calls for a visa ban as an example of the West’s “anti-Russian agenda”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “Step by step, unfortunately, both Brussels and individual European capitals are demonstrating an absolute lack of reason.”

And any visa ban would “not go unanswered”, he added.

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