Moldova after three years of visa-free regime with EU and new European realities

The abolition of the visa regime for Moldovan citizens in April 2014 was one of the most palpable accomplishments of the Moldovan authorities in the European integration process. Partially, owing to this success, Moldova was considered a “success story”. But this description was practically abandoned in the light of the multiple political crises caused by corruption and very serious offenses, like those committed in the banking system.

On March 28, 2017, Georgia joined Moldova, becoming the second Eastern Partnership country for which the EU abolished the visa regime (VisaFreeEurope, March 2017). Meanwhile, Ukraine goes through the last procedural stages so that it could also benefit from visa-free travel in the Schengen Area by the end of 2017. The negotiations with Georgia and Ukraine, as well as with Turkey and Kosovo, on the liberalization of visas depended a lot on the changes made by the EU to the visa waiver suspension mechanism (Council of the EU, February 2017). Thus, the EU introduced more rigorous conditions towards the countries that benefit from visa-free travel, including Moldova.

During the three years of visa-free regime with the EU, Moldova has never been regarded as a problematic country. However, the data of the European Agency FRONTEX reveal several negative aspects identified in the behavior of Moldovan citizens. For now, the proportion of these problems cannot expose the visa-free regime with the EU to particular real suspension risks.

Three years of advantages for Moldovans

Owing to the liberalization of visas, the frequency of trips by Moldovans to the Schengen countries has increased. Thus, by about 20,000 more citizens visited the Schengen countries in 2015 compared with 2013.

Evidently, the elimination of the compulsoriness of visas, which was associated earlier with bureaucracy and time lost to obtain documents, stimulated the Moldovans’ interest in travel. Bulgaria and Romania remain the main destinations before and after the liberalization of visas. A significant increase was also recorded in the number of trips to Greece, which almost trebled after 2013 (from 8 540 visits in 2013 to 21 158 visits in 2015). Italy, Austria, France and Germany are among other countries that became popular destinations for trips. (See below Table 1.)

Table 1. Number of trips by Moldovans to Schengen Area

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

Total number of trips by Moldovans

136 095

146 791

157 556

180 646

189 790

Austria

909

1 100

942

906

1 307

Belgium

5

61

42

262

48

Bulgaria

43 374

51 415

52 812

60 289

55 762

Cyprus

261

234

91

154

142

Croatia

90

121

157

311

235

Denmark

30

17

29

34

12

Switzerland

75

88

71

45

110

France

686

1 046

683

853

967

Germany

264

320

343

481

575

Greece

4 066

5 726

8 540

15 358

21 158

Italy

580

951

1 498

2 079

2 454

The Netherlands

30

75

53

108

55

Poland

343

418

296

252

108

Czech Republic

1 082

1 545

1 007

1 186

1 380

Romania

12 830

12 931

14 175

18 437

20 812

Slovakia

15

33

13

87

29

Slovenia

51

154

190

185

152

Spain

468

794

967

1 591

1 689

Hungary

721

885

810

1 059

845

Total number of trips to Schengen countries

65 880

77 914

82 719

103 677

107 840

Source: National Bureau of Statistics

Besides extending the possibilities of travelling without visas in the EU for Moldovans, the liberalization of visas enabled to annul the costs for visas. So, according to estimates, over €3.7 million was saved in 2015 alone.

Moreover, the advantages of the visa-free travel in the EU motivated the Moldovans from the Transnistrian region to apply for biometric passports issued by the constitutional authorities. In 2015, their number came to 76 759, increasing by another 30 354 in 2016. Ukraine has similar expectations of the visa-free regime with the EU by which Kyiv wants to attract the population of Crimea, which was occupied by Russia in 2014.

In another development, the liberalization of visas improved the Moldovans’ attitude to their attachment to Moldova. Indirectly, this created preconditions for a decline in the number of applications for Romanian passports. Nevertheless, the worsening of the political-economic situation in the country will inevitably lead to a higher interest in Romanian identification papers, which are more often regarded as an opportunity for becoming employed in Europe or even for settling there.

Liberalization of visas and new European realities

Unlike Moldova, the liberalization of visas with Georgia and Ukraine lasted longer. Primarily, the process was delayed for several months owing to the revision of the mechanism for suspending the visa waiver with third countries.

Under the pressure of the flow of migrants from outside, the refugee crises and the incidence of acts of terrorism (Belgium, France etc.), the European officials decided to improve the visa waiver suspension mechanism in relation to third countries. Earlier, the procedures were more difficult and didn’t enable swift (during two months instead of six already) and long-term (up to over two years) suspension.

After the latest modifications, the mechanism became more flexible and this can be activated by simply notifying the Commission by a member state. Moreover, when at least 13 EU member states (simple majority) submit a notification, the Commission is obliged to reintroduce the visas for a period of at least nine months for the group of citizens concerned from the given third country. If the problems are not solved as a result of a dialog with the European Commission, Brussels can extend the suspension of the visa-free regime for another 18 months, but already for all the citizens from a third country.

The improper implementation of the readmission agreement, which obliges third countries to accept back foreigners who illegally reach Europe from or through their territory, can serve as a reason for activating the suspension mechanism.

At the same time, the suspension can be asked if the number of applications for asylum and for residence permits in the EU increases. This category also includes the increase in the number of refusals of entry in the EU member states and of citizens who violate the period of stay (which is more than 90 days during 180 days). These deviations will be regarded as abuses against the visa-free regime provided by the EU and will create clear preconditions for launching the suspension mechanism. Furthermore, the suspension can be initiated if the citizens of a third country generate risks to the internal order and security or an EU member state (increase in the number of serious offenses committed by citizens of a third country).

Deviations committed by Moldovans

According to the data of FRONTEX (agency responsible for the administration of the European borders), the Moldovans are often included in the rankings of third countries whose citizens violate the European provisions on legal migration.

So, Moldova ranks third after Ukraine and Vietnam by the number of citizens who try to illegally cross the European borders, according to the data for 2016. (See Table 2.)

Table 2 Illegal crossing of borders

 

2015 – fourth quarter

2016 – third quarter

% of the total, 2016 – third quarter

Ukraine

236

422

35

Vietnam

122

187

16

Moldova

70

87

7.2

Russian Federation

61

76

6.3

Afghanistan

241

66

5.5

Source: Frontex

Also, Moldova is included in the rankings concerning illegal stay in the EU, taking the third position after Ukraine and the Russian Federation. (See Table 3)

Table 3 Illegal stay

 

2015 – fourth quarter

2016 – third quarter

% of the total, 2016 – third quarter

Ukraine

4981

5470

40

Russian Federation

1748

2219

16

Moldova

1019

1349

9.9

Georgia

448

735

5.4

Belarus

346

457

3.3

Source: Frontex

Moldova is among the top five third countries by the number of refusals of entry in the EU. (See Table 4)

Table 4 Entry refusals

 

2015 – third quarter

2016 – third quarter

% of the total, 2016 – third quarter

Russian Federation

7655

43829

65

Ukraine

7186

10402

15

Tajikistan

1512

2739

4.1

Moldova

1777

1633

2.4

Belarus

2035

1506

2.2

Source: Frontex

Ultimately, Moldovans are among foreign citizens who most often use false documents, being outstripped only by Ukrainians. (See Table 5)

Table 5 False documents

 

2015 – third quarter

2016 – third quarter

% of the total, 2016 – third quarter

Top nationalities

Ukraine

13

25

30

Moldova

20

20

24

Tajikistan

3

6

7.2

Top countries where false documents were issued

Moldova

12

20

24

Ukraine

10

17

20

Tajikistan

4

6

7.2

Source: Frontex

Instead of conclusion…

The visa-free regime provided to Moldova in 2014 simplified the interaction between Moldovans and the European area that represents the Schengen Area. Thus, the number of persons who apply for biometric passports to travel in Europe increased.

The liberalization of visas continues to be a useful instrument for attracting the population of the Transnistrian region, but its effects should be supplemented with solid country reunification policies that are absent for now.

The security crisis, in parallel with the abundance of illegal migration and refugee crisis that shook the EU member states during the last few years, forced the revision of the visa waiver suspension mechanism in relation to third countries. Not to become the target of this mechanism, the Moldovan authorities should prevent the trips by citizens who do not meet the criteria for traveling in the Schengen Area. Moreover, Chisinau should combat offenses related to illegal migration (including illegal stay etc.), signaled by FRONTEX.

The liberalization of visas provides a series of advantages. The most important thing is that this positively influences the Moldovans’ attitude to their attachment to Moldova. But this cannot compensate for the inability of the political class to efficiently manage public money and the country’s public property. That’s why the worsening of the socioeconomic and political situation in the country can at any time intensify the pace of restoring the relations between Moldovans and the Romanian state.

The visa-free regime should be treated like a starting point for the European integration, not as an end result of this. That’s why in parallel with the fulfillment of the commitments concerning the liberalization of visas, it is essential to rigorously implement the Association Agreement/DCFTA with the EU. The higher the number of palpable results similar to the liberalization of visas the European integration offers, the more solid the people’s devotion to the European course of Moldova will be.

This article was initially published on IPN News Agency on April 18 2017

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