EU Drafts New Rules On Suspending Visa-Free Travel For Third Countries

| March 18, 2024
EU Drafts New Rules On Suspending Visa-Free Travel For Third Countries

The European Union (EU) Parliament’s member state representatives are moving forward with drafting new regulations on suspending visa-free travel for third countries.

The new legislation will affect 61 non-EU nations, including the United Kingdom (UK), whose citizens can travel to the Schengen Zone without a visa.

Nationals from these visa-free countries can stay in the Schengen Zone for 90 days in any 180-day period.

“This new law, when adopted, will boost the EU’s toolbox to counter situations when visa-free travel is being abused or works against the interests of the EU,” read the European Council’s statement.

The draft agreement, signed on 13 March 2024, will allow the European Council to start negotiations with the European Parliament.

Both parties must reach a consensus to draft the final legal document updating third-country visa-free suspension rules.

New grounds for suspending visa-free travel suspension

The updated regulations will expand the EU’s options to address the misuse of visa-free travel in the EU.

It added new grounds for the EU to suspend visa-free travel for a third country. These include

Unaligned visa-free policies

The first is when a visa-free country no longer aligns with the EU’s visa-free policy.

An example is increased arrivals to the EU, especially when the third country is located close to the EU.

Investor citizenship schemes

A second addition to possible reasons for the visa-free suspension is when the third country operates an investor citizenship scheme.

Investor citizenship scheme offers citizenship/residency for investment without requiring a genuine link to the country.

Foreign investors are often granted citizenship with little or no background checks.

In doing so, they obtain a passport from that third country, allowing visa-free entry into the Schengen Zone.

The EU has often criticized such schemes, not only those operated by third countries but also by EU member states.

Investor citizenship schemes could serve as a backdoor entry point for criminals and corrupt individuals in Europe.

Lack of document security laws and procedures

Third is hybrid threats and shortcomings in document security laws or procedures.

Document security laws refer to legislation created to protect sensitive or confidential information contained in documents.

These laws prevent unauthorized access, use, disclosure, or destruction of such information.

Sudden decline of EU relations

Member states’ representatives also decided to add in the draft visa-free travel suspension in case of a “significant and abrupt” decline in the EU’s relations with the third country.

This is particularly important to issues related to “human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Existing grounds for visa-free travel suspension

Currently, the EU government has already set the following grounds for suspending visa-free travel for other countries.

  • There has been a significant increase in the number of non-EU nationals who have been refused entry or are overstaying in the Schengen Area.
  • The number of baseless asylum applications from citizens of a third country with a low recognition rate has substantially increased.
  • The country is non-cooperative with the EU on the readmission or acceptance of individuals who have been asked to leave the EU territory. This could be due to a risk or imminent threat to public policy or internal security, such as increased criminal offenses.
  • The country failed to meet the visa liberalization benchmarks to achieve visa-free status. This has been spelled out more clearly in the new regulation.

Visa-free suspension threshold and duration

The European Council also detailed the thresholds or benchmarks to trigger visa-free travel suspension.

EU Member states have set the threshold at 30 percent instead of the proposed 50 percent.

This applies to increases in cases of refused entry and overstaying, unfounded asylum applications, and serious criminal offenses.

On the other hand, the benchmark to determine whether an asylum recognition rate is deemed low has been set at 20 percent instead of the proposed four percent.

The reference period for identifying circumstances that may lead to visa-free suspension has been updated to at least two months.

This will enable more extended periods, such as annual trends, to be considered instead of just sudden changes in the relevant circumstances.

The period of temporary suspension for visa exemption has been extended from 9 to 12 months. The EU also has the option to extend it for an additional 24 months.

Under the current rule, the duration of temporary visa-free travel suspension is only for 18 months.

During the suspension period, the European Commission will initiate discussions with the third country to address the issues that caused the suspension.

“If no solution is found to remedy the situation, the EU can decide to permanently revoke the visa-free travel regime,” the statement read.

EU on improving border security

Updating the current laws on suspending visa-free travel for third countries aims to combat “significant migration and security challenges.”

For example, overstaying and unfounded asylum applications can lead to irregular migration.

The EU is set to implement more solutions and safeguards to improve the security of its borders.

Its new automated biometric border system, the Entry/Exit System (EES), will be operational in October 2024.

Non-visa travelers and short-stay visa holders visiting the EU’s Schengen Zone must register fingerprints and facial scans at the border.

The EES will record entry, exit, and refusals, as well as detect overstaying individuals and those who use fraudulent documents.

Before traveling to the Schengen Zone, visa-free travelers must also obtain a European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS).

The ETIAS, which works similarly to the UK’s Electronic Travel Authorization (UK ETA), is set to launch in mid-2025.

The UK and the EU have also recently signed a cooperation agreement to combat illegal migration in the region.