This April, my wife and I went to Greece for our honeymoon. It took some effort to organise this trip: we booked our flights, hotel and took care of our insurance—that was pretty much it. The Greek border officer did not even check our return tickets. He just scanned our biometric passports and let us through.
Before June 2017, when visas were still necessary for Ukrainians to go to the EU, the preparations would be quite different. We would have had to collect a whole bunch of documents for our visa applications: plane tickets, hotel bookings, insurance, proof of employment, proof of funds. Then we would have to apply personally at the visa application centre and pay a 35 euros processing fee and service fee of approximately 20 euros. After that, several weeks of waiting and not knowing whether we’d be allowed to spend our honeymoon in Athens.
That’s the main benefit of the visa-free regime—it gives freedom to travel without hassle, even spontaneously. Since June 2017, Ukrainians no longer have to stand in queues and prepare tons of documents in order to obtain the right to take a short-term trip to the EU. The visa-free regime has increased the number of Ukrainian tourists visiting the EU. Ihor Holubaha, the head of the Tourist Association of Ukraine, pointed out in an interview for the ВВС Ukrainian Service, that the flow of Ukrainian tourists to Europe increased by 7-8% in the first year of the visa-free regime.
The visa-free regime stimulates tourism in many ways. Apart from fewer bureaucratic barriers, it also reduces the cost of trips to Europe. Ukrainians no longer have to pay for visas and can spend this money in the EU. Additionally, visa liberalisation gives a huge boost to the infrastructure. Low–cost airlines like Ryanair have entered the Ukrainian market, offering tickets starting from 20 euros, and most competitors like WizzAir try to match these prices. By comparison, the cost of a round trip to Europe was rarely below 200 euros before, even on routes to Ukraine’s neighbours: Poland, Hungary and others. Regional airports have also seen some love: new routes have been open to and from Kharkiv, Odesa, Lviv, Mykolayiv, Zaporizhzhya and other cities.
Ukrainians were quite busy travelling to Europe during the first year of the visa-free regime. 20.3 million of them have visited the EU since June 2017—a huge increase if compared to 14.6 million in 2016. 4.8 million of them used biometric passes — more than half of all Ukrainian biometric passport holders. According to the latest data issued by the State Migration Service, 8.5 million biometric passports have been issued since 2015, when the possibility to obtain this kind of document was introduced. Meanwhile, 5 million of these passports were issued during the first visa-free year, and 2 million in 2018. The demand for biometrics has been so huge that applicants had to wait up to three months to receive their new passports: the state-owned company document was not able to print them as fast as necessary.
At the same time, only 555,000 Ukrainians travelled to the EU completely visa-free. The remaining 4.2 million owners of biometric passes still had visas. Kateryna Kulchytska, an expert at the Europe Without Barriers NGO, told UkraineWorld that these figures do not mean that the interest of Ukrainians in the visa-free regime is low. “A lot of people still had their multi-Schengen visas and kept on using them. As their visas will expire eventually, these people will be travelling visa-free,” Kulchytska emphasised.
Indeed, 2017 has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of visas issued by EU countries to Ukrainians. 720,000 Schengen visas were issued last year, while 1.4 million—double the figure— were issued in 2016.
The visa-free regime is beneficial not only for tourism. It also motivates small and medium-size businesses. People who own small and medium-size enterprises have more opportunities to travel to Europe in order to find business partners and promote their goods on the EU market.
Due to visa liberalisation, Ukrainian students and scientists have a wider range of opportunities than before. Hassle-free travel for up to 90 days allows them to take up internships in European companies or study at summer universities in the EU without many application problems.
The effect of visa liberalisation on the Ukrainian job market is mixed. On the one hand, it indirectly increases the brain drain. Ukrainian specialists have the opportunity to go to Europe visa-free, look for a job, and then apply for a work permit. It has also increased interest in seasonal work in Europe — and there are lots of scammers who promise Ukrainians they will find work for them for a fee and never deliver on their promises. On the other hand, the visa-free regime provides for official seasonal work in several EU member states (Poland, for instance). Official workers have more rights and can count on getting higher wages.
The latest poll by the Sociologial group Rating shows that 55% of those who were polled were personally interested in the introduction of the visa-free regime between Ukraine and the EU, while 38% were not interested. If we look at regional data, there is a significant difference between the Western and Eastern regions. Ukrainians in the West are the most interested in the visa-free regime (72%), while Ukrainians in the East are the least interested — (40%).
While Ukrainians mostly enjoy visa liberalisation, the question arises: could Ukraine lose it? At the moment, there are no reasons for suspension of visa liberalisation, said Iryna Sushko, executive director of the Europe Without Barriers NGO. She noted that the number of refused entries reaches only 0.2% (44,000), which is low enough. At the same time, there were 32,000 illegal migrants from Ukraine in 2017 — an increase of 12% if compared to 2016. However, the EU only considers this factor if the increase is 50% or more, Sushko pointed out.
However, there are other risk factors, with reforms being the biggest one. Ukraine’s visa-free regime is tied to progress on reforms, especially to the fight against corruption, Kulchytska told UkraineWorld. “If there is rolling back in anti-corruption reform and slow progress overall, the EU might consider suspending the visa-free regime for Ukrainians,” she warned.
Thus, visa liberalisation has another important benefit for Ukrainians: it is leverage that makes the Ukrainian Government keep reforms rolling. If any Government official caused the suspension of the visa-free regime, this move would end his/her political career. In this regard, the visa-free regime is a perfect metaphor for Ukraine’s EU integration: the path may be difficult, but there is no turning back.