EU countries torn over Russian tourist visa ban move

Northern European Union countries called Wednesday for the 27-nation bloc to impose a broad ban on tourist visas for Russian citizens, insisting that the issue is a matter of national security as President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine drags on.

But at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in the Czech capital, Prague, other member countries, like France, Germany and Belgium, argued that it’s important not to punish Russian people who may very well oppose the war or need to enter Europe for humanitarian purposes.

The EU already tightened visa restrictions on Russian officials and business people in May under a 2007 agreement to ease travel between Russia and Europe. But calls are mounting from, notably, Poland and the Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — for a broader ban on tourists.

“We need to immediately ramp up the price to Putin’s regime,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told reporters. “The loss of time is paid by the blood of Ukrainians.”

Uniform rules are supposed to apply across the 26 countries that make up Europe’s passport free travel area, but Reinsalu said that “it’s our national competence, under the principle of national security, to decide the issues of entry to our soil.”

Over the years, several countries have reintroduced border controls for security reasons in the so-called “Schengen area,” in which Europeans and visitors can travel freely without ID checks.

The foreign minister of Finland, which shares the EU’s longest border with Russia, underlined that his country would, as of Thursday, slash the number of visas being delivered to Russian citizens to 10% of normal. They’ll only be able to apply for the travel pass in four Russian cities.

“It’s important that we show that at the same time when Ukrainians are suffering, normal tourism shouldn’t continue business as usual,” Pekka Haavisto said. “Finland has already made our decision to limit the amount of tourist visas. We hope that the whole European Union will do similar decisions.”

Amid what appear to be very entrenched divisions over the issue, Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said he hoped that a common EU position can be found, pointing to the fact that Ukrainian men do not have the luxury to choose whether they can leave their war-torn country.

“It has to have consequences on all fronts,” Kofod said. “We want to limit visas for Russian tourists, send a clear signal to Putin, to Russia, (that) what he is doing in Ukraine is totally unacceptable.”

But European countries further from Russia and Ukraine’s borders are reluctant to go too far, and it appears likely that EU countries will simply agree to use the 2007 agreement to make it more time-consuming and costly for Russian citizens to get a visa.

Belgium Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib said it is important to avoid creating a patchwork system “where Russians could do a kind of visa shopping among the countries of the European Union.”

“It’s very important to target the right people. That is, those who support this unjust war against Ukraine and also those who try to evade the sanctions that we have imposed,” she said.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna agreed.

“It’s important to distinguish between those responsible for the war — in the front row the Russian president, his associates, and all those who support his war efforts — and Russian citizens; artists, students, journalists. The first are responsible for the war. The others, no,” she said.

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