World News

Georgia pleads for visa-free travel but EU not ready to deliver

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Georgia urged the European Union on Friday to honour its commitments and grant citizens of the ex-Soviet state the right to visit freely but the preoccupied bloc is not likely to deliver soon.

Despite promises to soon allow Georgians and Ukrainians to travel to the EU without visas, the bloc has put a brake on easing travel rules as it has grown increasingly weary of immigration.

Speaking at a news conference in Brussels after talks on broadening EU-Georgia trade and cooperation, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili called for the visa-free movement to materialise “in the nearest future”.

“This is one of the key immediate material benefits and incentives for European integration which our citizens look forward to,” he said.

He added Brussels was his first foreign visit since his ruling party won re-election in October and he was re-confirmed as prime minister, a sign of his country’s strong Western orientation.

Top EU officials publicly say both Georgia and Ukraine have met all the conditions for visa liberalisation. They say it is only a matter of EU states agreeing internally on an emergency suspension mechanism for all visa waivers that is lacking.

But behind the scenes, the tone is the opposite, with Germany, France, Belgium and Italy stalling.

“They are looking for excuses to kick the can down the road,” said one diplomat from a country frustrated that the EU as a whole cannot agree on this key reward for painful reforms.

Berlin and Paris face elections next year and want to avoid fuelling support for radical and populist parties that are already riding a wave of concern about immigration in the bloc.

They were boosted by an uncontrolled influx of more than a million refugees and migrants in 2015.

While Georgia is seen as a relatively easy case, Ukraine is much bigger and EU states are increasingly upset with what they see as insufficient progress on reforms in Kiev, especially on fighting corruption.

That means these deals are effectively off the table for now, even though the EU recognises both countries have formally met the necessary criteria.

Some diplomats warn that delays undercut the EU’s influence in the region, as well as leaving pro-Western groups in Georgia and Ukraine increasingly frustrated.

The bloc has already suffered setbacks in another former Soviet republic Moldova, which last month elected a president favouring closer ties with Moscow after several years of pursuing closer integration with the EU.

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Tom Heneghan