YEKATERINBURG, June 4 (RIA Novosti) – An agreement on easing the visa regime between the European Union and Russia may be signed in the near future, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said at the EC-Russia summit on Tuesday.
During a working meeting with the Russian negotiating team in the city of Yekaterinburg on Tuesday, the EC head indicated significant progress had been made since the last round of negotiations on this issue.
In May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed similar optimism, saying “The issue is now in the hands of the negotiators from the European Commission which is cooperating with our negotiators. They are in the final stage of agreeing on the wording.”
Speaking on Tuesday, Barroso also made it clear certain technical details have yet to be ironed out. Although he did not go into detail, this could be a veiled reference to Russian demands for visa-free access to the EU for Russians travelling on service passports (held by some officials), which has been a particular sticking-point in negotiations to date.
Speaking prior to the summit, Barroso stressed Russia’s importance as the EU’s “largest neighbor and strategic partner.”
Also on Tuesday, a group of 48 MEPs published an open letter to EU Foreign and Interior Ministers, expressing their objection to visa-free entry for Russian officials on service passports, and visa facilitation agreements with Russia generally.
The MEPs said their concern is motivated by fears “such a move would allow officials involved in gross human rights abuses to travel freely to the EU.” They also urged the Council to adopt “an EU ‘Magnitsky law’ as proposed in the Parliament’s recommendation of October 2012.”
US President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law on December 14. Its stated aim is to punish Russian officials deemed guilty of human rights abuses, and originated with concerns over the death in custody of whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009.
The Russia-EC summit in Yekaterinburg is dealing with a range of issues, from a deal on visas to economic modernization, trade, energy, WTO commitments, justice and human rights, and international affairs.
Negotiations between Russia and the EU on visa facilitation first surfaced as a priority area in Russia-EU relations at the Russia-EU summit of May 2003. A visa facilitation agreement was reached in 2007, which lowered visa fees, simplified procedures and made multi-entry visas more accessible.
“The implementation of the ‘Common Steps towards visa-free short-term travel,’ launched at the Summit in December 2011, is well underway,” an EU press release ahead of this summit said.
Moscow has made visa-free travel with the EU a foreign-policy priority. However, resistance within the EU to further visa liberalization with Russia remains, as some fear that it could lead to a rise in crime and illegal immigration.