Ukraine will get visa liberalization but if I was asked to put money on a specific date when it will actually happen, I would refrain from betting any large sums. In fact, considering the uncertainty in Brussels I would avoid betting on it altogether. The reason for this uncertainty is that just like with the ratification of Ukraine's association agreement with the European Union, the issue of a visa free regime for Ukrainian citizens has been caught up in forces far beyond Kiev's control. It is no longer up to the Verkhovna Rada or Groysman's government. Nor can the European Commission influence much. The issue is now up to a few EU capitals and, to a large extent, the European Parliament.
The main issue why the wait has been so long this autumn and why it risks becoming longer still is the revised suspension mechanism for visa free regimes. This is an instrument that can be triggered if any country which enjoys a visa free to the EU Schengen zone - so not only Ukraine - misuse the system. It can be a sudden large influx of citizens of one country suddenly coming into Schengen or that many people overstay the time period of 90 days. A suspension mechanism already exists for many years but EU member states asked for an updated version that would make it easier to suspend visas for a while or completely revoke the visa free regime in the first place.
Many Ukrainians that I have talked to understandably think that these revised rules have been ushered in because Ukraine is next in line to get visa liberalization. Although I can understand the sentiment, I am not convinced at all that it is the case. The problem, and I guess you can refer to it as a problem for Ukraine in this context, is that the proposal from the European Commission for a visa free regime for Ukraine came as a package together with Georgia, Turkey and Kosovo. I haven't met a single EU diplomat that honestly think that there will be a huge and uncontrolled influx of Ukrainians and Georgians but there are fears concerning both Kosovo and Turkey. Several Kosovar citizens have already tried to get into Schengen zone posing as economic migrants and the volatile and sometime violent situation in Turkey makes the EU a possible and enticing destination for many Turks.
So in order for all the 28 EU member states to accept visa free regimes with this quartet, a revised suspension mechanism has to be agreed first. And it is this issue that is slowing down the whole process. Ever since the summer the Council and the European Parliament have been locked in talks, most often very unproductive ones, on who should have the right to trigger the suspension mechanism. It was first in early autumn that the talks between the two institutions was speeded up but so far there hasn't been a breakthrough. It is a classical institutional battle of power that you see very often in Brussels on all sorts of issues but the problem here is that both Ukraine and Georgia is caught up in it and it isn't much these countries can do to influence it.
The negotiators are meeting once again this week but I don't expect that we will see any white smoke. At the moment there is a proposal by Slovakia, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, on a three-step solution where EU member states first gets the right to trigger the suspension mechanism, the Parliament get the right to prolong the time for the suspension and both then permanently move one country away from the visa free category if the problem isn't solved. The Parliament isn't too happy with this and now there is work on a more complicated solution where the member states and the Strasbourg chamber can push the button already at the first instance but the rights of each institution to do so depends on what the specific transgression of the rule is. I can't tell whether this will fly or not but I am convinced that is bound to be a messy and complicated deal that only experts in the EU capital can fully understand. Negotiations on the original suspension mechanism took more than a year though, so I hope and think it will go faster this time.
So where does this leave Ukraine? EU ambassadors will on Thursday (17 November) discuss giving the Council a green light to start negotiate visa liberalization for Ukraine with the European Parliament. If this happens, Ukraine will be in the same boat as Georgia, who got this green light already in September. The caveat is however that these negotiations can start first when there is a deal on the suspension mechanism. So in a sense it would mean that Ukraine is one step closer to the goal but that the biggest hurdle still is in front of the country.
I am however not sure that ambassadors will give the green light already this week. When the issue was discussed a few weeks before in the visa working group, which consists of EU diplomats dealing with home affair issues, both Belgium and France raised objections. They still don't think that Ukraine is doing enough when it comes to fighting corruption. I am also not sure where Germany stands here. My feeling is that they still might hesitate to give Ukraine the green light just like they did with Georgia before the summer.
What goes in favour of Ukraine is however that there is an EU-Ukraine summit next week (24 November) and that many in the Council want to have one concrete deliverable for Ukraine. Giving a green light perhaps by EU ambassadors the day before, 23 November, would be such a deliverable and if there isn't an agreement on the suspension mechanism it will be more symbolic than useful at that moment. It would also smooth the blow dealt to Ukraine about the document that is likely to be worked out in December among EU member states that will allow the Netherlands to possible ratify the association agreement.
Now I am back to my very first assertion at the start of this text about the difficulty in guessing the date when Ukrainians actually can travel to the Schengen zone without a visa. I still think that there is room for an agreement on the suspension mechanism before the end of 2016. Likewise, I also think that Ukraine this year will get the green light from ambassadors and that the negotiations between the Council and Parliament to actually grant Ukraine visa free will take a day and not more. Ideally the European Parliament plenary scheduled for 12-15 December should vote on Ukraine, Georgia and the suspension mechanism. After that decision, it usually takes some 6-8 weeks to translate and implement the actual deal. That takes us to February if all goes well. I can't see it being done earlier. I can see it happening a bit later since this process seems to take a lot of unseen twists and turns. That is why I am not betting any money on a concrete timetable and absolutely no Euro cent on an actual date.