x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Visa-free travel to Europe for UAE citizens unlikely until 2014

Officials have confirmed that, regardless of levels of support, the process will run into 2014, due to European Commission and European Parliament bureaucracy.

DUBAI // Despite widespread support from European countries for visa-free travel for Emiratis, it may still take another year for the process to be finalised.

"Schengen" countries - comprising most of Europe but not the UK or Ireland - have been compiling reports on the economic, political and mutual benefits of a visa waiver for UAE citizens since November.

However, regardless of levels of support, officials said that the process will run into 2014, due to European Commission and European Parliament bureaucracy.

This comes on the back of support voiced by European diplomats in Abu Dhabi, who highlighted the economic and political importance of such a move.

"The [Spanish] minister has reiterated to the European Commissioner the benefits in all aspects, including economic, political and cultural," said Jose Fernandez Valderrama, the Spanish ambassador to the UAE.

The Italian ambassador, Giorgio Starace, added that all the European missions are positive about the move.

"Our embassy has highlighted the benefit of such a move to the Italian government," he said.

However, three countries initially opposed any change to current visa rules - Austria, Germany and Belgium. Although Germany has since changed its position, it is still unknown whether the other two will follow suit.

A lifting of visa restrictions would allow Emiratis to travel without a visa in the Schengen agreement countries.

In addition, there are a number of processes that must be followed before any change could take place, and this will take time.

According to the EU Home Affairs office, the process starts when the European Commission makes a proposal, on which the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union then makes a final decision.

"The vote takes place according to the normal voting procedure in the EU, the so-called co-decision," said a spokesman for Cecilia Malstrom of the EU Home Affairs office.

"The European Parliament will vote on the proposal during one of its plenary sessions and the council will vote according to qualified majority, normally during a session of the Home Affairs Council."

Any proposal to transfer countries to the visa-free list are put forward as part of a regular review process carried out by the European Commission and are based on a case by case assessment of technical requirements and criteria relating, among others, to irregular migration, public policy and security - and to the EU's external relations with third countries, the spokesman said.

Getting past the European Parliament stage will be the trickiest step, according to an Abu Dhabi-based European diplomat.

"In light of the recent Human Rights report - parliamentarians from Germany, France and Italy were involved - it is not possible to forecast how they would vote," the diplomat said.

Mr Valderrama, however, said that he expects his country in the parliament to support the move.

"The European Parliament is independent, with representatives of their different constituencies voting independently," Mr Valderrama said. "My guess is that they have full support for this because it is a question of justice."

He said that a visa exemption would provide reciprocity between the EU and the UAE.

"One hundred per cent of the visa requests for the UAE are granted here and many EU countries see that request is a logical one and support it," he said.

The EU Home Affairs Department added that if the UAE were not to be transferred to the visa-free list this time around, there was still a possibility that the situation could change in the future.

"Future revisions of the lists will, in addition to the existing criteria, also take into account the possible economic benefits for the EU of granting visa-free status to non-EU countries," a spokesman said.

Last week Germany expressed its support to the UAE in a statement from its foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, and interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs thanked Germany for exempting UAE citizens from requiring a visa to enter the Schengen area.

Furthermore, a visit by the Austrian minister of European and international affairs, Dr Michael Spindelegger, was conducted on February 14 to enhance bilateral relations and cooperation. During the Abu Dhabi visit no statement was released on the visa issue.

amustafa@thenational.ae