On the 28th of April 2014, Moldova became the first Eastern Partnership (EaP) country granted with a visa free regime to Schengen area. This allows Moldovan citizens holding a biometric passport to travel to Schengen countries up to 90 days within any 180-day period without a visa. I propose here to analyse the details of this achievement.
Moldova-EU negotiations opened officially on June 15, 2010 and closed more than four years later on April 28, 2014. A Visa Liberalisation Action Plan (VLAP) was set up, encompassing four blocks: 1) Document security, including biometric passports; 2) Integrated border management, migration management and asylum; 3) Public order and security; 4) External relations and fundamental rights. It contains preliminary benchmarks concerning the overall policy framework (legislation and planning) and more specific benchmarks (effective and sustainable implantation of relevant measures). Annual reports assessing the achievements of the country are made by EU officials in close cooperation with national authorities. This process is monitored by the Commission through Directorate General for Home Affairs and the results are presented to both the Council and the Parliament for approval. The visa dialogue between the EU and the six EaP states starts with a Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreement focused on facilitating the procedures for issuing short-stay visas as well as the readmission of irregular migrants between the EU and the EaP country in question. This later establishes then with the EU an Action Plan containing all the necessary benchmarks first on legislation and then on implementation.
At the preparatory stage, the EU-Moldova visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreement entered into a force in October 2007. It was followed in May 2008 by the Mobility Partnership. An exhaustive Action Plan was set up in 2010, encompassing requirements on migration issues (legal & illegal migration, readmission, visa, and asylum) and border management fight against organised crime (including migrant smuggling and trafficking of human beings). These general objectives are implemented through practical measures included in the Action Plan. The provision on border management can be taken as an example. It encompasses six requirements: 1) Transformation of Boarder Guards into a law enforcement agency (that means that the border guards’ body should be demilitarised); 2) Enhancement of cooperation with neighbouring countries; 3) Setting up a comprehensive educational and training strategy on state border management; 4) Enhancing equipment and developing infrastructure for efficient state border management; 5) Facilitating cross-border cooperation between Moldova, the EU member states, and neighbouring countries; 6) Development of regional cooperation between relevant law enforcement bodies.
These are structural and irreversible changes that Moldovan authorities carried out with the EU support. €21millions were granted to Moldova for the implementation of Visa Liberalisation Action Plan, under the form of budget support. In November 2013, the Commission issued a progress report on the VLAP stating that ”Moldova meets all the benchmarks set in the four blocks of the second phase of the VLAP.” Therefore, following the Vilnius Summit of the 28-29 November, the Commission presented a legislative proposal to lift visa requirements for Moldovan citizens, holding a biometric passport. This proposal was adopted by the Council on 14 March 2014 after the Parliament gave its green light to the amendments on 27 February 2014.
There are several incentives for both the EU and Moldova to engage and go through this fastidious process. Firstly, facilitating cross-border mobility contributes to enhancing people-to-people contacts, which decreases the probability that conflicts will occur. This approach was developed by the constructivist school lead by Alexander Wendt. In that sense, facilitating access to its Member States’ territory is a way for the EU to secure its Eastern flank. Therefore, the EU fulfils one of the main goals of its Neighbourhood policy, whereas the current pro-European ruling coalition in Moldova hopes to be politically rewarded in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. A slight majority of the Moldavian population stands in favour of getting closer with the EU.
Secondly, waiving visa obligation is a strong incentive for Moldova to comply with the EU standards in strategic fields such as immigration policy, customs control and transborder cooperation.
Thirdly, Moldova can pave the way for the other EaP countries. Ukraine and Georgia have already singed a VLAPs, and a simplified visa regime is going to be introduced in Azerbaijan beginning in September. In the absence of membership perspective in the nearest future, waiving visa obligations is a major step to make people feel closer with the EU by means of accessing its member countries’ territory more easily.