I am pretty convinced that Ukrainians finally will enjoy a visa free regime with the EU's Schengen zone this spring. I use the word “pretty” here because I have, throughout this debate about visa liberalization both for Ukraine and Georgia, learned to be a bit more cautious in my predictions. This is the case because of the unprecedented times of political turmoil we are experiencing in Europe at the moment. This turmoil will for sure continue in 2017 and that is why any bold predictions from my part is tempered with the knowledge that even formalities, which is what remains for Ukraine in its quest for visa-free, can be used for political purposes. We have seen it before - think of the Dutch referendum on the Ukrainian association agreement - so you really cannot rule out anything anymore.
In a normal world, and in a confident European Union, Ukraine will get visa liberalization some time between April and June this year. I think it will happen and it would be the logical period of the year if one looks at the predicted time schedule.
What we first need is a final approval from both the Council and the European Parliament of the revised suspension mechanism. You might recall that the decision on this piece of legislation was taken already towards the tail-end of last year but you need a second round of approval. This is because the text that was agreed needs to be translated in all official EU languages and there is a need to “legally scrub the text” as well. This means that lawyer-linguists go through the text and check all the expressions to see whether all of it fits in well with common legal EU practices. The translations and the scrubbing usually takes six to eight weeks and given that this work started before Christmas it is reasonable to expect that final documents should be ready some time in late January or February.
Sources in the European Parliament have told me that this work can go quicker and that the Council can speed up the translation and the scrubbing if they really want to. It is becoming clear that some member states aren't too much in a hurry on this file, something I will come back to further down in the text. It is however still reasonable to expect that the final approval of the suspension mechanism from both EU institutions should come in February or March. When the text is adopted through the publication of the legislation in the EU's official journal, the institutions are ready to go ahead with the Ukraine visa free file. For this you need four steps - all formalities - but still potential hurdles if someone feels like stopping the process.
The first step is the trialogue between the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council on Ukrainian visa freedom. This trialogue for Georgia took place just before Christmas and it took less than an hour to find an accord. It should, according to all accounts I have heard, be the same for Ukraine. The deal from the trialogue then needs approval from the Council. For Georgia this happened a few days after the trialogue and it passed without any discussions or fuss. Once again, there should be no reason why the same procedure isn't repeated for Kyiv. The final two steps are the vote in the European Parliament's civil liberties committee and after that a vote in the full parliament plenary before the file is signed and published in the official journal.
If we once again take Georgia as an example, the vote in the civil liberties committee happened on 12 January and was passed overwhelmingly and the final vote in the full plenary is scheduled for 2 February where it will pass with a big majority. So from the trialogue to the final vote you have about six weeks. Georgia obviously have to wait for the approval of the suspension mechanism but it seems reasonable to believe that their citizens can travel visa free in March/April. So Georgia will get it before Ukraine and it is with more certainty than what is the case for Ukraine that I can predict that they will get it.
If we were to use the same time-frame for Ukraine, it should take us to April/May when Ukrainians get visa freedom. Now, I mentioned above that some EU member states want to slow down the process. While I do believe that they won't block Ukraine at any of the above mentioned hurdles, I understand from my sources that some brakes might be applied. Don't expect visa liberalization before the Dutch parliamentary election on March 15. The French elect a new President in what is likely to be two rounds, one in the end of April, the second in the beginning of May. While no one openly has said that France would prefer the Ukraine visa question to get the final green lights after the elections, it is clear that this very well might be the target. It was on French insistence that the visa trialogue with Ukraine would start first when the suspension mechanism was adopted while Georgia could go ahead immediately after the initial compromise struck between Council and Parliament back in December. This was clearly done with one eye at the electoral calendar in 2017.
So April/May should stand if everything goes smoothly. But there can always be black swan events that can slow down or stall the process. It shouldn't happen but there is uncertainty in the air in Brussels. We have a massive election season in Europe with Germany going to the polls in addition to the already mentioned Dutch and French votes. In electoral campaigns a lot of things are said and promised that may have a bearing further down the road. After Trump everyone fears a Le Pen victory, even if it looks unlikely at the moment, and the potential ramifications this would have for the EU. You might have another big terrorist attack in the EU that suddenly prevents legislation to be passed or at least slow things down considerably. And even though Ukraine can't do anything to speed things up, negative news about corruption or political incompetence in Kyiv can cause some EU capitals to get second thoughts.
As I said, these are potential and so far imaginary black swans. Everything at the moment points to a slow but steady walk for Ukraine towards visa freedom this spring. But as I also said before, following this process has taught me to always add a bit of caution in everything I say or predict.