In the summer no one but the most initiated EU affairs correspondents or home affairs civil servants knew what the suspension mechanism was. Now it is the first issue Ukrainian and Georgian politicians raise in their discussions with their European counterparts and EU leaders pronounce their estimations when a final agreement on the topic might happen. It's always “close”, ”in the next days” or “soon”. It has even prompted some EU diplomats dealing with the file to rename it to the “suspense mechanism”.
To understand why it is taking such a long time one needs to look into the two main aspects that is making this such a painstaking process: The political game between the Council and the European Parliament and the ambivalence in some member states whether they want an agreement at all.Related: "Ukraine is no longer at the top of the agenda in Brussels", - Rikard Jozwiak exclusively for 112.international
Let's start with the first aspect: the negotiations between the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament. But more specifically about the talks the two lawmakers, parliament and council because it is here the fights have taken place. The talks started in the summer but have been very slow. The speed hasn't really picked up until the last few weeks. The summer break, which takes up the whole of August in Brussels, contributed to the lack of pace but diplomats also notes that the talks over the mechanism gave the parliament an excellent chance to flex its muscles and claim bigger powers to influence future EU decisions. It has, more than anything, been about how much of a say the chamber will have not only now but especially in the future and these negotiations can set a precedent for future trialogues with the European Commission and the Council on other topics. That is why no side has been willing to concede much. It is intra-institutional fight that might excite Brussels buffs but is totally incomprehensible to ordinary citizens in Ukraine or anywhere else for that matter.
What they essentially are fighting for are two things: Who has the right to trigger the suspension mechanism and to whom the suspension should apply to. It is “the final step” or “the last hurdle”, as politicians have called it, but as in most negotiations, the hardest bits are usually left till the very end.
What seems to be established now is that the triggering of the suspension mechanism will happen based on a three-step solution. If a Schengen member state see that citizens of a specific visa free country break the rules, such as for example a large number of Ukrainians overstaying the visa free period, it is the Council that will decide that the visa-free regime should be suspended for a number of months. This is the first step. The second step is that it is up to the Parliament to prolong the suspension time and the final step is a co-decision on permanently removing a country from the visa free list.
The issue here is how long the first two steps should be. The most recent formula is 12 months suspension for the first step and 18 for the second step. It seems to be acceptable to both Council and Parliament but there is also another proposal that suggest 6 months at first and 18 months for the second phase. This would please the Parliament but not several EU member states that want tough rules such as France and Germany. The reason this proposal has been floated is that the Parliament don't seem willing to agree on the second aspect, to whom a suspension should apply to.
Here, France and Germany wants the widest possible cover. It should simply apply to everyone but the European Parliament doesn't really want an explicit mention of that. It is all about what language is used to describe the categories of passport holders. The Parliament wants to keep it as vague as possible, the Council has been pushing for a wording that mentions “relevant types” of travel documents which in essence covers everything. If a compromise can't be found here, it might be that negotiators starts elaborating with the time limits of suspension again.
So what about the EU member states themselves and their desire to actually find an agreement on this? In some quarters there isn't too much willingness. France is ambivalent and countries such as Germany, Italy, Belgium and Denmark have to a varying degree been hesitant.
What we know is that there will be another meeting of EU ambassadors in Brussels on 7 December to discuss the issue and if there is push to finally resolve it, there can be a new trialogue already the same day. But this might be the very last chance if there is to be a vote on the issue in the European parliament plenary, the following week on 12-15 December.
The big question is however if there is a will?
The Presidents of all three EU institutions Martin Schulz, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk have expressed great hope and confidence that there will be solution this year. But a senior EU source told me that they are using a public platform to put pressure on all relevant partners to come to a conclusion. It is as much a game as anything. And it is a game that now has moved up from diplomats on the highest level. The three gentlemen's confidence is contrasted with a person close to the negotiations who told me this week that “they wouldn't bet any money on a deal”. I get very much a sense of negotiation fatigue setting in, that an agreement remains elusive because of battles between home affairs departments and foreign affairs departments in various EU capitals that want different things and it is usually security concerns in Europe that trumps foreign diplomacy at the moment.
Still I expect a final push in the days to come. I expect that many countries really want to conclude this as soon as possible for two big reasons. The first one is that these delays have hurt and might continue to hurt the credibility of the EU and the functioning of the Council. The second is that Malta takes over the EU presidency in January and this question will not be on the top of their agenda for the six months they are at the helm.
So if I could look into the crystal ball I would say that a deal will be possible before Christmas and that member states will do the utmost to avoid the issue being discussed among Prime ministers and Presidents at the EU summit on 15-16 December. I see that the EU Commission might come with a report clarify which passports are covered by the suspension mechanism and I wouldn't be surprised to see that the actual implementation of the visa free regime will happen later in the Spring, possible after the French elections.
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Visa lib - It's always “close”, ”in the next days” or “soon” - Jozwiak
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