BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Georgia still hopes to win visa-free travel to the European Union, its envoy to Brussels said on Friday, after last-minute objections from Germany seem to have suspended the process.
Struggling to control immigration fuelling support for nationalist and populist parties across the bloc, the 28-nation EU failed to agree for the second week running on easier travel requirements for Georgia’s three million residents.
The south Caucasus country has met all the criteria for the EU visa waiver, but Germany led the last-minute opposition with backing from France and Belgium, diplomats said.
It seemed Georgia was being held hostage to build leverage in the more complicated visa liberalization talks with Turkey - whose help the EU needs to control immigration under a deal sponsored by Berlin - and Ukraine, where a peace deal negotiated by Germany and France to end a conflict with Russia-backed rebels in the east of the country has stalled.
“It’s a little bit childish to say that we are hostage of the political circumstances, because these are the ones that dictate decisions and we understand this,” Georgia’s EU Ambassador Natalie Sabanadze told Reuters.
“But I do say that we feel that we have fulfilled our part of the bargain and now it’s up to the EU to deliver ... The question now becomes political, it’s a matter of taking a political decision.”
After last year’s arrival of 1.3 million refugees and migrants, most of whom ended up in Germany, the EU is now making it easier to suspend visa waivers before granting the privilege to more countries.
Already approved by member countries, the beefed-up “suspension mechanism” is now being handled by the European Parliament. German diplomats say they want European lawmakers to sign off on this before the bloc moves on other countries.
By far the biggest one in line is Turkey, which wants relaxed travel rules for its 79 million residents in return for preventing refugees and migrants from leaving its shores for EU member Greece and taking back those who make the journey anyway.
After facing heavy criticism at home over her handling of the migration crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has invested heavily in the deal with Ankara. But Ankara was enraged on Thursday when the German parliament recognized a 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces as genocide.
Turkey does not meet the visa-free criteria and will probably miss an end-June deadline for that, although it could win final approval for visa-free travel in the fall.
Other diplomats said Germany may be reluctant to let Georgia through before Ukraine, where conflict is still simmering two years after Russia annexed Crimea from Kiev and then backed rebels fighting Kiev troops in the industrial east.
Moving ahead with Georgia but leaving Ukraine behind would weaken the standing in Kiev of the pro-western President Petro Poroshenko, said some diplomats in Brussels. Others, however, pointed to Georgia’s parliamentary elections in October, saying a delay in visa liberalization would be damaging to Tbilisi.
Georgia’s President Guiorgui Margvelachvili will visit Brussels and meet European Council chief Donald Tusk on Wednesday. The bloc’s justice and interior ministers will meet on visa liberalization again on Thursday-Friday in Luxembourg.
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels, Andreas Rinke and Thorsten Severin in Berlin; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Tom Heneghan