Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, said in an interview with RFR/RL that if the next European Commission assessment of the implementation of visa liberalization action plans by Georgia and Ukraine is as "promising” as the most recent report, EU visa-free travel to the citizens of the two countries is "quite possible” in 2016.
When asked if Ukrainian and Georgian citizens will be able to travel in the Schengen zone without visas in 2016, Tusk responded: "Everything depends on their efforts and determination – of course it is possible, but it is not a formal promise, because we are in the middle of the process, but the progress in the both countries – Georgia and Ukraine – is really promising.”
"What I can say today is that I am quite sure that we will have the next assessment [from the European Commission] maybe in November and if the progress is as promising as today, I think that in 2016 it’s quite possible,” Tusk said.
The remarks were made ahead of the May 21-22 Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, where Georgia wanted to receive an endorsement for visa-free travel rules in the Schengen area. However, multiple reports on the draft declaration in the Riga Summit indicate that such decisions are not expected during the summit.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs, whose country now holds EU’s rotating presidency, said that discussions about the text of the Riga Summit declaration are still ongoing and "probably the final touches” on the document will be made during the summit itself.
"I hope that taking into account the report from the commission on Visa liberalization Action Plan for Georgia and also for Ukraine we will be able to acknowledge the positive developments in those countries, we will be able to agree that if remaining benchmarks are met – and there is going also to be a certain deadline by which the Commission should reassess the progress – and if there is all necessary requirements met, then we are going to have also the decision,” Rinkēvičs said on May 19 in Brussels.
"Riga should send a very strong signal. I don’t have a specific comment on the exact wording as it is still in preparation but I hope we will get necessary and positive encouragement for countries that signed the Association Agreement,” he added.
The European Commission said in its report on May 8 that despite significant progress, Georgia "still needs to address the remaining recommendations” in its visa liberalization action plan.
The European Commission said that it will report on Georgia’s further progress on the implementation of the visa liberalisation action plan by the end of 2015.
The Commission, however, also said that "in view of the significant progress Georgia has made in the past few months, the Commission is ready to bring forward the timing of the next report provided that the rapid progress… continues.”
The report assesses Georgia’s progress in meeting benchmarks set under the VLAP in four blocks that involve document security, border and migration management, public order, and external relations and fundamental rights. It assesses these benchmarks as either "achieved”, "almost achieved” or "partially achieved”.
The report deemed benchmarks related to document security, integrated border management, fighting organized crime, protection of personal data, freedom of movement, issuance of travel and identity documents, and international legal cooperation in criminal matters as "achieved”.
Benchmarks in migration management, money laundering, cooperation between various law enforcement agencies, and citizens’ rights that include minority protection have been deemed by the report as "almost achieved”. Benchmarks in asylum, human trafficking, anti-corruption and drugs are deemed as "partially achieved.”
On combating corruption, the report calls on Georgia to pursue the reform of the civil service with laws in line with international practices that would set the scope and standards for a professional and depoliticized civil service and would further strengthen the practical protection of whistleblowers.
Concerning drug policies, the report says that although Georgia made substantial progress in implementing a national anti-drug strategy, the policy "remains based more on retribution than restorative action.”
When asked about EU membership perspectives sought by Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, Donald Tusk told RFE/RL that the EU should not give an "empty promise.”
"The Eastern Partnership was not official, formal promise of membership,” said Tusk, who was PM of Poland, when the Eastern Partnership was initiated six years ago with strong backing of Poland and Sweden.
"This idea, dream of membership in the EU is quite new. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have the right to have dream, also the European dream and our duty – and I also think it is my personal responsibility – is to deliver not an empty promise that it [membership] is possible tomorrow or day after tomorrow, but the way to Europe – I mean maybe not membership in predictable future, but to European standards, to our cultural and political community,” Tusk said.
"Our obligation is to say the truth,” he said, adding that empty promises will only cause huge disappointment for those countries.