EU foreign ministers have agreed to suspend a 2007 visa facilitation agreement with Russia over the country's war in Ukraine, top EU diplomat Josep Borrell announced on Wednesday.
"This will significantly reduce the number of new visas issued by the EU member states. It's going to be more difficult, it's going to take longer," Borrell said at the end of a two-day meeting of foreign ministers in Prague.
He also said there had been a substantial increase in border crossings from Russia into neighboring states since mid-July.
"This has become a security risk for these neighboring states," Borrell added. "In addition to that, we have seen many Russians traveling for leisure and shopping as if no war was raging in Ukraine."
The move was particularly welcomed by member states that border Russia. "We need to immediately ramp up the price to Putin's regime,'' Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told reporters. "The loss of time is paid by the blood of Ukrainians.
"It takes some time, but I think timing is also critical, looking at these vast numbers of Russian citizens entering," he added.
"It's important that we show that at the same time when Ukrainians are suffering, normal tourism shouldn't continue business as usual,'' said Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto.
How will visa process change?
The move is designed to prevent "visa shopping" by Russian applicants seeking easier entry to the European Union through member states with laxer rules, the EU foreign policy chief said.
Such a move would make the EU visa process more complicated, more expensive and more bureaucratic, as well as increasing waiting times for approval, according to European Commission guidelines.
Students, journalists and those who fear for their safety in Russia would still be able to acquire visas. The move would have no immediate impact on the estimated 12 million visas already issued to Russian citizens, but EU officials are looking into what could be done to freeze them.
The suspension comes after weeks of pressure from EU countries bordering Russia, such as Finland and Estonia, to crack down on Russian nationals traveling to the bloc on Schengen visas issued by some EU member states.
Diplomats said the EU ministers could not agree immediately on a blanket ban of travel visas for Russians as member states were split on the issue.
However, Finland's top diplomat Haavisto said the EU's move to restrict travel visas for Russians due to Moscow's war in Ukraine is a step "in the right direction" if implemented by member states.
How many Russians visit the EU?
According to the EU border control agency Frontex, almost a million travelers with Russian passports have come to the EU since the war in Ukraine started six months ago. The overwhelming majority of these travelers arrived in Finland (333,000), Estonia (234,000), and Lithuania (132,000).
The high number of trips by land to countries neighboring the EU can be explained by the lack of direct flights between Russia and the bloc since the outbreak of the war. As a result, countries like Germany and France are now more difficult to reach.
dh,es/nm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)