Germany and France, the European Union’s largest and most influential member states, have joined forces to oppose the growing demands for a EU-wide ban on the issuance of visas to Russian tourists.
The two countries believe the radical move would alienate the entire Russian population, including those who still hold some attachment to the West.
“While understanding the concerns of some member states in this context we should not underestimate the transformative power of experiencing life in democratic systems at first hand, especially for future generations,” Germany and France wrote in a document seen by Reuters.
“Our visa policies should reflect that and continue to allow for people-to-people contacts in the EU with Russian nationals not linked to the Russian government.”
The tourist ban has been backed by an increasing number of member states, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Denmark and Poland, who argue the invasion of Ukraine merits the total suspension of Russian tourism.
On Tuesday, the Netherlands voiced its support in an interview with local media.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy went even further and urged all Western nations to impose a blanket travel ban on all Russian citizens.
Meanwhile, the Portuguese government said EU sanctions against the Kremlin should “penalise the Russian war machine and not the Russian people,” a viewpoint echoed by Spain.
Greece is yet to take a formal position in the debate, Euronews understands.
Introducing a EU-wide ban requires the unanimous agreement of the 27 member states.
‘We have to be selective’
The joint opposition from Berlin and Paris comes ahead of the informal meeting of foreign affairs ministers in Prague, where the issue is set to feature high on the agenda.
Wednesday’s meeting is hosted by the Czech presidency of the EU Council.
The Czech Republic has thrown its full support behind the EU-wide ban with the government suspending the issuance of visas to Russians before taking over the presidency.
“Total halting of visas for Russians should be another effective sanctions against Russia,” Jan Lipavský, the Czech foreign minister, said on Tuesday. “It’s necessary for the EU to respond together.”
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, one of the fiercest advocates for the sanction, said earlier this month that visiting Europe was a “privilege, not a human right.”
Around 30% of Russian tourists enter the EU via the Estonian border, she said.
Kallas later clarified her idea envisioned exceptions for humanitarian assistance and asylum seekers, in line with international law standards.
Finland, which shares a 1,300 kilometre-long land border with Russia, has equally called for a visa ban and has already restricted permits to 10% of current volumes (over 100 a day).
Russian nationals are organising car trips to the airports of Helsinki and Lappeenranta to then catch a flight towards other EU destinations, according to reports by Finnish media.
In Brussels, the mounting demands from the East have so far received a cold reception.
“I don’t think [cutting] the relationship with the Russian civilian population will help and I don’t think that this idea will have the required unanimity [in the EU Council],” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, told Austrian TV on Sunday.
“I think that we have to review the way that some Russians get a visa, certainly the oligarchs. We have to be more selective. But I am not in favour of stopping delivering visas to all Russians.”
‘It is simply not fair’
In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, the EU decided to shut down its air space to Russian aircraft, grinding direct flights to a halt. The bloc also closed its ports to Russian-operated vessels.
But land travel from Russia towards the EU remains technically allowed, even if some bordering countries have frozen or severely limited the issuance of tourist visas in response to the war.
Data from Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, shows that, since the Ukraine war broke out in late February, nearly a million Russians citizens have legally entered the bloc via land, mostly through Finland, the Baltic states and Poland.
The current debate focuses on so-called Schengen visas, which allow tourists to travel across the passport-free Schengen area during a maximum period of 90 days.
Schengen encompasses 24 EU countries, together with Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.
The short-term visa has to be processed and certified by a Schengen state and is recognised by all the other members as a legal passage into their territory.
Proponents of the measure argue the Russian population is responsible for supporting Vladimir Putin and, by extension, the military campaign that he decided to launch.
“Ukrainian men have to fight for their freedom and the freedom of their country, at the same time, Russian men can come to southern European countries for vacation or shopping in nice European cities, and so on and so on,” Urmas Paet, a Estonian MEP who sits with the liberal Renew Europe group, told Euronews ahead of the Prague meeting.
“It is simply not right. It is simply not fair.”
For those against the idea, the EU borders should remain open to dissidents, journalists and political opponents who defy the Kremlin and wish to flee the country.
“Banning visas for all nationals of a given country would be an unprecedented decision,” said Marie Dumoulin, director of the Wider Europe programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“[It] would stigmatise Russians and play into the hands of the Russian propaganda, which depicts the West as essentially driven by its Russophobia.”
Since Wednesday’s ministerial meeting is informal, no formal decision will be taken, although new steps could be announced.
As an alternative to an outright ban, diplomats are considering the suspension of a 2007 agreement that gives preferential treatment to visa requests from Russian nationals, according to the Financial Times.
Revoking the agreement would make the application process much more onerous and expensive.