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Merkel backs Georgia visa-free travel to EU, but suggests Ukraine link

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday endorsed swift approval of visa-free access to the European Union for Georgia, but suggested the move could be linked to visa liberalisation for Ukraine.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, June 15, 2016. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Both the south Caucasus country and Ukraine have met the criteria for the EU visa waiver, but Berlin earlier this month led last-minute opposition to the process.

Germany and a handful of other EU countries want the European Parliament to support a beefed up suspension mechanism that makes it easier to suspend visa waivers before granting the privilege to more countries, EU diplomats say.

“We would like this process to be concluded quickly. It is with the European Parliament now, ” Merkel told a joint news conference with Georgian Prime Minister Georgy Kvirikashvili.

“I expect that we can agree swiftly on the issue of visa liberalisation for citizens of Georgia,” she said.

EU diplomats say that, in addition to waiting for the parliament to approve the emergency brake, European governments want to pressure Ukraine and Russia to implement the Minsk peace deal for eastern Ukraine.

Visa liberalisation is a bargaining chip to press the government in Kiev to move. However, Ukraine has appealed to the EU not to grant Georgia visa-free access first, for fear of weakening the standing in Kiev of the pro-western President Petro Poroshenko, EU diplomats say.

Merkel made a connection between the Georgia and Ukraine bids for visa-free travel to the EU, without going so far as to say that they must proceed at the same pace.

“For me, it is significant that association agreements between the EU and Georgia and also with Ukraine were signed at the same time,” she said.

“It is not very easy to explain to one country how things are with another,” she added. “However, I understand that each country wants to be treated on its own merits.”

For Ukraine and Georgia, visa-free access to the EU is part of a geo-political tussle with Russia over ex-Soviet states with Western aspirations.

Reporting by Paul Carrel and Andreas Rinke; Editing by Richard Balmforth