With EU Ministers set to make a decision tomorrow, Benjamin Tallis argues that there is a liberal case for a Russian visa ban, and the opposition to it reveals a weakness in European democracy

Banning Russian tourists from entering the EU, in light of their country’s brutal war on Ukraine, has become a hot topic in Europe.

A ban has been called for by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and proposed by Finnish and Estonian Prime Ministers Sanna Marin and Kaja Kallas. The idea has attracted vocal support from EU citizens and commentators outraged that Russians continue to enjoy the privilege of tourism as their countrymen wage war – and commit war crimes – in Ukraine and while their state actively undermines Europeans’ security. The visa ban would be a strong show of European resolve for Ukraine and against Russia. 

Yet, many European liberals have hesitated to support the ban or even actively opposed it on various grounds. Some have argued (wrongly) that EU law doesn’t allow such an action or that it amounts to a form of ‘collective punishment’ that represents a ‘with us or against us’ logic which is anathema to the Union’s identity and liberal values. Others worry that it would close down escape routes for Russians under threat from the Putin regime, unfairly hit the ‘Russian opposition’, or would otherwise have counterproductive effects on EU foreign policy or the advancement of liberal politics in Russia. 

It’s good that these objections have been raised so vociferously as they are indicative of several more general problems with liberal politics in Europe. 

There Can Be No Concessions or Negotiations with Vladimir Putin

Paul Niland

The Value of Mobility and the Costs of War

Free movement has been at the heart of the EU’s model of integration and its success in transforming seemingly ingrained, even structural conflict between continental powers such as France and Germany into cooperation. Encouraging contact between peoples, as well as states and businesses, helped take the danger out of difference. It allowed Europeans to recognise and pursue their common values and interests, which underpin the EU. This approach, which progressively made travel between EU states easier, culminated in the creation of the Schengen zone which allows people to move without border controls among its members. 

Mobility has also played a crucial role in EU foreign and neighbourhood policy. Not only is the chance to travel to EU states highly desired by its neighbours, but it is also a channel through which the EU has been able to spread and secure its ‘sphere of integration’ by encouraging imitation. The wager has been that people visiting the EU from neighbouring countries will like what they see and then adopt or adapt its standards and practices in their own countries while also becoming more familiar with EU citizens. The Union has further used visa liberalisation (removing the visa requirement) to incentivise its neighbours to make reforms.   

We should not view this issue through the lens of collective national guilt but, rather, that of collective societal responsibility.

So, given all those positive arguments for openness and enhanced mobility, why ban Russian tourists from the EU? 

Most importantly, to support Ukraine, performatively reinforce our own democracies and send a strong signal of our resolve to the Putin regime. In this instance we needn’t worry about the loss of any positive transformative power as the EU doesn’t have any in Russia – at least not through this channel. 

This type of influence (through imitation, adoption or adaptation) only works when there is a desire for progressive change on the part of those visiting. This worked very well with Ukrainians who have shown their willingness to improve, reform and democratise their country, often by taking inspiration from EU states and in spite of entrenched vested interests. It hasn’t worked with Russians, even though they have consistently been the largest group of Schengen visa recipients (taking one-quarter of total Schengen visas issued in 2021). 

The millions of tourist trips to the EU haven’t slowed the Russian Federation’s slide into ever more aggressive authoritarianism over the last two decades. By allowing these visits, EU states have left themselves in an unfortunate situation whereby they grant one of their greatest privileges (which we deny to so many people around the world) to Russians, who often seem to be laughing in our faces. They rub our noses in the fact that they can afford to travel and shop while not having to worry about upholding democracy, freedom and human rights. Worse, many of their compatriots have been actively working in the cracks in our own systems to undermine those values and standards in EU states. 

We cannot sit idly by and allow the contentment to which we contribute by allowing travel to feed the silent consent that undergirds Putin’s aggressive empire.  Doing so would make us look weak and would just encourage Putin who only respects strength. It would also give the impression we are not fully committed to Ukraine as we are still happy to take Russian tourists’ cash. 

Giving that up money will look like a cost to some – but we shouldn’t see it that way. As with imposing sanctions, bearing that cost in defence of our principles would make us look stronger, not weaker. Like the military and humanitarian aid we provide, it would actually be an investment, not only in a Ukrainian victory but also in the resilience and vibrancy of our own democracies. 

‘They Took Everything From Us’Russia’s Long War Against Ukraine

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Liberally Banning Russians

Demonstrating our resolve in standing up for Ukraine and against Russia is the primary reason for EU states to prohibit Russian tourists. 

A visa ban would hurt the ruling elite and their families, which is good. It would also hit opposition figures and some more democratically minded Russians.

The group that would be hit hardest is the urban middle and upper-middle class – those who have the funds to travel to EU countries and do so rather than vacationing in other destinations such as Turkey (for which they need no visa). This group, which does not lack potential political capital should they choose to exercise it, too often seems satisfied with the bargain Putin offers: stay out of politics and you can have a materially nice life – including travel. 

As the histrionic response to the proposed visa ban shows, we can make it harder for this group to forget about the war – and their complicity in it – while shopping in Paris, eyeing the Bruegels in Vienna or sipping cocktails on a Spanish beach. 

Whether this would swell the ranks of the ‘opposition’ is uncertain. The Russian opposition cannot be our main concern in any aspect of our policy on Ukraine, which is not ultimately about them.  We should, however, continue to provide ways out of Russia for those who wish to emigrate, for those in humanitarian need and those under threat of violence or persecution. We should not succumb to the widespread notion that those seeking asylum are best served with tourist visas. Upping member states’ game on approving and processing national, territorially limited humanitarian visas, as well as labour and residence permits is a better option. 

The EU as a whole should also revisit proposals for a special class of Schengen-wide humanitarian visa that it abandoned in 2017. Nor should it be forgotten that Russians can travel visa-free to more than fifty countries worldwide – EU states are not their only option in case of urgent need. 


Collective Responsibility 

Some EU commentators and experts have complained that this all smacks of collective punishment of Russians for their regime’s actions. But it should be remembered, as Kaja Kallas noted, that a visa to visit the EU is a privilege, not a right.

Withdrawal of a privilege is not the same as ‘collective punishment’ (normally used to describe events such as the Nazi massacre of the Czech village of Lidice).  As Eugene Finkel has argued, we should not view this issue through the lens of collective national guilt but, rather, that of collective societal responsibility. That fits with how we view the crimes of the Third Reich: while the Nazi regime was most directly culpable, German society as a whole was also responsible for facilitating the regime – whether via participation, support, acquiescence or silence. 

This notion of responsibility resonates with Vaclav Havel’s analysis of power and resistance in ‘post-totalitarian’ regimes, such as in 1970s Czechoslovakia.  Havel, long a dissident against the Soviet-imposed Communist regime, noted the difficulties that accrue to those who resist but argued that every acquiescence – and every failure to resist – only strengthened the regime and allowed it to reproduce its power. Conversely, even small shows of dissent ultimately demonstrate the power of those who otherwise see themselves as powerless. 

Those who sought immediate refuge in the EU’s rule book highlight a tendency to prefer liberal process over liberal outcomes that has hobbled the West in recent years. 

Today, this endurance has given us a Russia that butchers its neighbours, tries to destabilise EU societies, and is the greatest single threat to European security. Russians collectively bear their share of the responsibility for these hostile acts and so a withdrawal of collective privilege is a perfectly reasonable response. 

The Czech government, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU agrees. Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky put the visa ban on the agenda for a meeting of EU foreign ministers scheduled for 31 August. Lipavsky voiced support for the ban, arguing that Russian citizens should “realise that such a militant policy has consequences.” 

This contrasts with the stance of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz who has opposed the ban on the grounds that the assault on Ukraine is “Putin’s war” not Russians’ war collectively, which clashes with lessons from his country’s own history. 


Contravening EU Law?

The German Chancellor’s position does, however, resonate with experts who have argued that applying measures with such a collective impact contravenes the spirit of EU primary law as well as the Schengen visa code which stipulates that applications must be judged individually. 

The first point falls flat as the EU already applies sanctions – among many other measures – which also impact collectively. In fact, an EU visa ban is actually less of a blunt instrument as it would hit the upper and upper-middle class in urban centres.

These objections also ignore the security considerations that justify exceptions to the application of rules in the usual way. On these grounds, the Czech Republic stopped processing many visa applications from Russians back in the spring and several of the ‘frontline’ states (Estonia, Latvia) have followed suit in recent days. 

The Schengen Borders Code (Article 6.1[e],) also makes clear that no member state is obliged to admit a third country national (such as a Russian) bearing a visa if they are concerned that this person threatens the ‘national security’, ‘public policy’ or ‘international relations’ of the member states. This means that even in the absence of a general EU-level agreement it would be possible for individual member states to block the entry of Russians holding Schengen visas issued by other states.

Though the legal obstacles and principled objections thus seem surmountable, the rush to use these arguments to stop a visa ban indicates wider problems in European liberal politics.

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Liberal Societies Must be Defended

Liberal democracies must strive to uphold the rule of law, and in this case, they could impose a visa ban while doing so. Yet those who sought immediate refuge in the EU’s rule book highlight a tendency to prefer liberal process over liberal outcomes that has hobbled the West in recent years. 

Even if there were not a legal way to enact such a ban, the EU states should amend their rules to create one. The primacy of political, security and strategic imperatives over rigid adherence to extant legal frameworks is surely clear in this extraordinary situation – the largest war in Europe for more than seventy years. 

Yet for some, the rigidity of a legalistic and technocratic form of liberalism remains a virtue, even as it increasingly runs up against its limits. The restrictive comfort of legalism removes the need to take a decision, and the need to enter the aporia of weighing political options where there is no perfect answer. It is, in short, a get-out clause that amounts to a disavowal of responsibility – and it is linked to a cavalier shyness about using the EU’s very real power, which includes tools like the visa ban. 

It is also connected to the suspicion that many in Western EU states, seem to have about Ukraine’s fight for national survival.  Some Europeans who believe they have overcome the dangerous lure of nationalism (or even patriotism and national identification), find Ukrainians rallying around their flag and their state distasteful. Others seem unable to comprehend why fighting for self-determination, democracy and freedom are necessary and why peace at any price is no solution. They are blind to what Putin’s Russia really is – an enemy that must be treated as such and one which we can and should help Ukraine to vanquish. 

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For those caught up in a delusional self-image of post-national, post-war Europe, using coercive power to serve strategic ends is the antithesis of the EU’s raison d’etre. So too is choosing sides and embracing the ‘with us or against us’ logic that is an essential part of fighting wars, and winning them. To correct this they should look to the member states that have overtly declared they have national skin in the game, including those closest to Russia, and which have consistently shown themselves to have a better understanding of how to handle Putin than their Western European peers. 

The Baltic states, the Czech Republic and Finland have all been in the vanguard of support for Ukraine. They all support the visa ban, which they know serves liberal outcomes better than blindly sticking to self-defeating liberal processes. 

EU Foreign Ministers should bear this in mind when they discuss the ban in Prague. Before then, we Europeans should remind them that if Ukraine is to defeat Russia and if we are to win the wider systemic competition against authoritarian regimes, we have to be able to harness patriotism for progressive purpose – and be prepared to unleash the full arsenal of democracy. This is our fight too and we should act like it. 

Benjamin Tallis has worked on issues relating to visas, borders, and EU foreign and security policy for the last 20 years.

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