Questions and Answers on the revision of the suspension mechanism for visa-free travel and accompanying Report
I. Strengthening the suspension mechanism for visa-free travel
What are the key elements of the proposal?
The proposal is a targeted one, amending Article 8 of the Visa Regulation (the Visa Suspension Mechanism). The aim of the proposal is to equip the EU to respond to emerging migratory and security challenges to the visa regimes. Visa-free regimes are crucial for the EU and its partners and bring substantive benefits in people-to-people contacts, economic development, tourism, and cultural exchanges. The revised proposal introduces:
1) New grounds to suspend visa-free regimes: which include the possibility to suspend a visa regime on the basis of lack of alignment of a third country with the EU's visa policy, in cases where this may lead to increased arrivals to the EU, as well as investor citizenship schemes and hybrid threats (the latter under security risks). These new grounds will be in addition to the currently existing ones (increase in irregular arrivals or unfounded asylum application, security risks and lack of fulfilment of the visa liberalisation benchmarks for partners that went through a visa liberalisation dialogue to become visa-free).
2) More flexible thresholds to trigger the suspension mechanism: the possibility for the Commission to consider higher or lower thresholds when deciding whether to suspend a visa-free regime in cases of a substantial increase in irregular migration, unfounded asylum applications or serious criminal offences linked to the nationals of that third country, following a case-by-case assessment.
3) A revised suspension procedure: on the one hand, longer timeframes for the suspension (from 9 to 12 months for the first phase, and 18 to 24 months for the second phase) to allow more time for dialogue with partner countries to remedy the circumstances that led to the suspension and prevent the termination of the visa-free regime; on the other, a new urgency procedure to react swiftly in case of need.
4) Strengthened monitoring and reporting: the geographical and material scope of the reports under the Visa Suspension Mechanism will be tailored to the specific challenges identified in any of the partner countries with a visa-free regime. The sixth report, which is being adopted together with the proposal for revising the suspension mechanism, is already an example of such strengthened reporting: for the first time, the Commission is reporting also on countries in the Pacific and the Caribbean with investor citizenship schemes in place (for more information see section II).
What is the context?
The past years have shown that significant challenges related to irregular migration and security can derive from visa-free travel. Insufficient visa alignment with the EU visa policy can turn a visa-free country into a transit hub for irregular entries to the EU. This was the case of visa-free entries into the Western Balkans by nationals of countries that are visa-required for the EU, increasing the number of irregular arrivals to the EU in 2022. The issue was addressed after immediate and extensive contacts between the Commission and Western Balkans partners, who made substantial progress in visa alignment. As a result, irregular arrivals to the EU have been reduced. Additionally, investor citizenship schemes operated by visa-free third countries pose security risks including those related to infiltration of organised crime, money-laundering, tax evasion and corruption for the EU.
Does this mean that the Commission will now suspend additional visa-free regimes based on the new criteria?
The new grounds do not lead to an automatic suspension. The suspension mechanism ultimately remains a mechanism of last resort. The Commission's goal is to resolve any current challenges (e.g., irregular migration resulting from visa misalignment, unfounded asylum applications, security risks raised by investor citizenship schemes, etc) diplomatically and through joint efforts with the partner countries concerned.
Why is the EU concerned about investor citizenship schemes operated by visa-free countries?
While the EU respects the right of sovereign countries to decide on their own naturalisation procedures, investor citizenship schemes run by visa-free third countries could present security risks for the EU and its Member States. The EU is especially concerned about investor citizenship schemes that are commercially promoted as providing visa-free access to the EU. The purpose of visa waiver agreements is to facilitate people-to-people contacts between the EU and a third country, not to enable nationals of other visa-required third countries to circumvent the EU short-stay visa procedure through the acquisition of citizenship by investment. Visa-free access to the EU should not be leveraged in exchange for investment.
This issue has also been raised by the European Parliament in its resolution of 9 March 2022. Among other requests, the resolution called on the Commission to exert as much pressure as possible to ensure that third countries that have investor citizenship schemes in place and that benefit from visa-free travel abolish those schemes, and to submit a proposal to include the operation of investor citizenship schemes as a ground for suspension.
II. Sixth report on the EU visa-free regime with Western Balkans, Eastern Partnership, and other visa-free countries
What is the Commission presenting today?
Today, the Commission reports on results of its monitoring of the EU visa-free regime with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia as well as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. For the countries that became visa-free less than 7 years ago (Georgia and Ukraine), the report also provides a more detailed assessment of other actions taken to ensure the continuous fulfilment of the benchmarks.
The report also covers, for the first time, other geographical areas beyond the EU neighbourhood, focusing on visa-free countries that operate investor citizenship schemes: Vanuatu and Eastern Caribbean states.
What is the general assessment?
The Commission considers that all EU neighbouring countries have taken action to address a number of the recommendations made in the previous report and continue to fulfil the visa liberalisation requirements. However, all 8 countries need to continue to take further measures to address various concerns related to the fight against organised crime, corruption, and irregular migration. To ensure a well-managed migration and security environment, and to prevent irregular migration flows to the EU, the assessed countries must further align their visa policy with the one of the EU. These countries should also take action to effectively phase out investor citizenship schemes or refrain from systematically granting citizenship by investment. It is imperative that the reform process undertaken during the visa liberalisation negotiations is sustained and that the countries do not back-track on their achievements.
What is a visa liberalisation requirement (benchmark)?
60 countries around the world benefit from visa-free travel to the EU. In some cases, visa-free access can be decided following bilateral negotiations, called 'visa liberalisation dialogues'. They are based on the progress made by the countries concerned regarding specific requirements (or ‘benchmarks'). These include implementing major reforms in areas such as strengthening the rule of law, combatting organised crime, corruption and migration management and improving administrative capacity in border control and security of documents.
Visa liberalisation dialogues were successfully conducted between the EU and the 8 countries covered by today's report. On this basis, the EU granted visa-free travel to nationals of these countries; for Montenegro, Serbia, and North Macedonia in December 2009, for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina at the end 2010, for Moldova in April 2014, for Georgia in March 2017 and for Ukraine in June 2017.
Why does the report only assess some countries out of all those which have visa-free regimes with the EU?
The report focuses on countries that have successfully completed a visa liberalisation dialogue: Albania; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Montenegro; North Macedonia; Serbia; Georgia; Moldova and Ukraine. Under the EU rules, the Commission is responsible for reporting to the European Parliament and the Council on the continuous fulfilment of visa liberalisation requirements by non-EU countries which have successfully concluded a visa liberalisation dialogue less than seven years ago (currently Georgia and Ukraine). The Commission also continues to report on specific priority areas for the remaining countries in the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership. The report also covers, for the first time, other geographical areas beyond the EU neighbourhood, focusing on visa-free countries in the Caribbean and Pacific that operate investor citizenship schemes.
The Commission will continue implementing the new comprehensive monitoring approach announced in its Communication of 30 May 2023, covering all visa-free third countries. Based on the outcome of that monitoring process, the Commission will continue to report on visa-free third countries in relation to migratory and security challenges, beyond its reporting obligations.
What is the Commission doing to ensure the partner countries' alignment with the EU's visa policy?
Visa policy alignment is a pre-condition to ensure that the visa liberalisation requirements continue to be fulfilled. It is also necessary to ensure a well-managed migration and security environment. All countries covered in the report are required to take further actions to align their visa policies with the EU. The Commission has consistently recommended, both in the visa suspension mechanism reports and in the annual enlargement packages, that the countries should ensure further alignment of their respective visa policies with the EU lists of visa-required third countries, in particular as regards those third countries which present irregular migration or security risks for the EU.
What are the next steps?
The report sets out actions to be taken by the partner countries to ensure the sustainability of reforms. Close monitoring is an ongoing process, including through senior officials meetings as well as the regular Justice, Freedom and Security subcommittee meetings and dialogues between the EU and visa-free countries, the regular enlargement reports, including, where relevant, EU accession negotiations.
The Commission will also continue to monitor all visa-free countries operating investor citizenship schemes and will intensify the dialogue with those countries in view of finding long-term solutions aimed at preventing any possible circumventions of the EU short-stay visa procedure and the in-depth assessment of individual migratory and security risks it entails.
What is the visa suspension mechanism?
The visa suspension mechanism was first introduced as part of the EU's visa policy in 2013. The mechanism gives a possibility to temporarily suspend a visa-free regime for a non-EU country, for a short period of time, in case of a substantial increase in irregular migration from the partner countries.
The European Parliament and the Council adopted a revised mechanism which entered into force in 2017. Under the revised mechanism, the Commission can trigger the suspension mechanism, whereas previously only Member States could do so. In addition, the revised mechanism introduced an obligation for the Commission to:
- monitor the continuous fulfilment of the visa liberalisation requirements which were used to grant visa free travel to a non-EU country as a result of a successful conclusion of a visa liberalisation dialogue;
- report regularly to the European Parliament and to the Council, at least once a year, for a period of seven years after the date of entry into force of visa liberalisation for that non-EU country.
These measures in place since 2017 allow the European Union to react quicker and in a more flexible and effective manner when faced with a sudden increase in irregular migration or in internal security risks relating to the nationals of a particular non-EU country.
When can the suspension mechanism be triggered?
Based on current rules, the suspension mechanism can be triggered in the following circumstances:
- a substantial increase (more than 50%) in the number people arriving irregularly from visa-free countries, including people found to be staying irregularly, and persons refused entry at the border;
- a substantial increase (more than 50%) in the number of asylum applications with from countries low recognition rate (around 3-4%);
- a decline in cooperation on readmission;
- an increased risk to the security of Member States.
The Commission can also trigger the mechanism in case certain requirements are no longer met as regards the fulfilment of the visa liberalisation benchmarks by non-EU countries that have gone through a visa liberalisation dialogue. Today, the Commission proposed to strengthen the Visa Suspension Mechanism broadening the possible grounds for triggering the mechanism.
For More Information
Press release: The Commission proposes to strengthen the EU's visa policy with a more robust Visa Suspension Mechanism