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EU agrees visa-free access for Ukrainian and Georgian citizens

Citizens from the former Soviet states will soon be able to travel to the EU without a visa. However, countries such as Germany have insisted on strengthening emergency measures to pause access, if required.

EU diplomats and lawmakers on Thursday ended an internal dispute which had been holding up a plan to grant Ukrainians and Georgians visa-free travel to the bloc. The deal marks an end to the mounting embarrassment facing EU leaders who felt the bloc was reneging on promises it made to the former Soviet states.

The European Commission had initially proposed lifting visa restrictions for Ukrainians back in April. However, an internal dispute among member states concerning an "emergency break" to the measure had stalled talks.

However, the European Parliament announced Thursday that it had struck an informal deal with member countries for a so-called suspension mechanism.

European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted on Thursday: "Almost there. Visa suspension mechanism dispute over. Now the final stretch towards visa free travel for Ukraine and Georgia."

That final stretch is expected to be a parliamentary vote, possibly as soon as this week. 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko welcomed the "encouraging news from Brussels," while Georgia's foreign minister, Mikheil Janelidze, said: "Georgia is Europe and it will become more and more tangible for our people."

The prospect of easier travel to and within the EU and been leveraged by Kyiv and Tbilisi to win backing for austere, EU-sponsored reforms.

Both former Soviet countries are seeking to align themselves closer to Brussels, away from Moscow's orbit.

Watch video 03:01

'Visa-free travel is a symbolic step’

'Emergency breaks'

As part of the deal, EU officials agreed on a mechanism to temporarily suspend Ukraine and Georgia's visa exemption rules for up to nine months, if required. Member states can ask the EU to suspend visa-free travel if there is a sharp rise of migrants or a substantial increase in unfounded asylum applications from the country in question.

The mechanism was key to striking to a compromise. European leaders had hesitated over opening their borders to more nations. Last year's influx of more than a million people seeking refuge from the Middle East and Africa caused a strong public backlash across the bloc.

France and Germany, the bloc's leading powers, both face challenges from anti-immigration parties in elections due to be held next year. Both countries pushed for tougher controls before backing the new visa deals.

The new deal allows some 50 million citizens to now travel to EU without a visa, the vast majority of which come from Ukraine, which is stuck in a conflict with Russia.

Türkei Merkel besucht Flüchtlingslager in Gaziantep (picture alliance/dpa/S. Suna)

Some 3 million Syrian refugees are estimated to be sheltered in Turkey

Under the plan, EU citizens will be able to travel to the two former Soviet countries, and vice-versa, for a period of stay of up to 90 days in any 180-period without a visa.

EU: 'No progress made on Turkey's visa-free travel conditions'

Turkey is also seeking visa-free travel for its citizens as part of a deal with the EU to stem the flow migrants reaching Europe. The agreement has stalled, however, with the main sticking point being the European Commission's insistence that Turkey change its terrorism definitions, which it says is being used to crack down on journalists and political opponents. 

On Thursday, the Commission said Turkey had made virtually no progress on meeting conditions set to earn visa-free travel for its citizens.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, has said that recent attacks by the so-called "Islamic State" and Kurdish separatists meant the government could ill-afford watering down its anti-terror laws. 

Erdogan has threatened to open the floodgates for migrants to enter the EU if Brussels reneges on its promises.

dm/se (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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