Visa facilitation opportunities were first mentioned in the European Neighbourhood Policy Action Plan (ENP AP) in 2006. The necessity of starting visa facilitation negotiations with Georgia was emphasised in the conclusions of the special meeting of the European Council held on 1 September 2008. On 27 November 2008, the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs Council approved a mandate for the European Commission to start negotiations with Georgia on the Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements. The Visa Facilitation Agreement and the Readmission Agreement between the EU and Georgia were signed on 17 June 2010 and 22 November 2010, respectively. Both agreements entered into force on 1 March 2011.
In accordance with the Visa Facilitation Agreement, some important measures were implemented in Georgia with regard to the issuance of Schengen visas for Georgian citizens: visa fees were reduced and certain categories issued free of charge, the issuance of multiple entry visas was simplified, the period for processing visa applications was reduced, holders of diplomatic passports became exempt from visa requirements, a list of documentary evidence regarding the purpose of the journey was defined, etc.
The Readmission Agreement aims to enhance cooperation between Georgia and the EU in combating irregular migration. The Agreement also specifies the legal framework for the process of returning irregular migrants. Despite the fact that implementation of such an agreement was a new experience for Georgia (the Government had neither previous experience nor appropriate capacities in this area), implementation of the Agreement by Georgia was positively assessed by the EU.
Following effective implementation of the Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements, and successful implementation of reforms in the fields of justice, civil liberties and security, in June 2012, the European Union launched a visa liberalisation dialogue with Georgia. In February 2013, the European Commission presented the Georgian Government the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan (VLAP). The VLAP included a set of benchmarks that had to be met in order to enable Georgian nationals holding biometric passports to enter the Schengen zone for short stays without a visa.
The VLAP was structured around four standard blocks (document security, irregular migration, public order and security, foreign affairs and human rights) which were to be subsequently implemented in two phases: overall policy framework (legislation and planning) and effective and sustainable implementation of relevant measures. Practical implementation of the VLAP by Georgia was monitored by the European Commission (through official reporting by Georgia and EU evaluation missions), which had to communicate progress to the European Parliament and the European Council.
In November 2013, the European Commission adopted its first progress report on Georgia’s implementation of the VLAP and made several recommendations for completing implementation of the first-phase VLAP benchmarks. In October 2014, the Commission adopted its second progress report, which concluded that Georgia fulfilled the first-phase benchmarks of the VLAP and was thus invited to start implementation of the second phase. The second progress report also concluded that the legislative and policy framework required by the benchmarks on document security, including biometrics, and the benchmarks concerning integrated border management had almost been completed. Georgia was also progressing well in implementation of the first-phase benchmarks related to migration management, asylum, public order and security, as well as external relations and fundamental rights.
In December 2014, Georgia submitted an updated progress report. The European Commission led evaluation missions on the four blocks of the VLAP from December 2014 to March 2015, involving experts from EU Member States, assisted by the Commission, the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the EU Delegation to Georgia.
On 8 May 2015, the European Commission issued its third progress report on Georgia’s implementation of the VLAP. The Commission assessed Georgia’s implementation of the second-phase VLAP benchmarks in line with the established methodology and on the basis of evaluation missions and data and documents provided by Georgia. According to the report, Georgia’s progress under the four blocks of the VLAP was significant and “showed the country’s strong commitment and the extent of the efforts it made”. The main conclusion of the report was that “the functioning of the legislative and policy framework, and the integrity of the institutional and organisational principles and procedures across the four blocks generally comply with the best European and international standards”. Accordingly, the European Commission concluded that “Georgia was broadly in line with the second-phase benchmarks of the VLAP”.
The Commission considered seven benchmarks as fully completed and four as almost fulfilled, while further improvements were to be made in the remaining four benchmarks. One of the important recommendations in the field of migration was that Georgia should continue to carry out “targeted information campaigns setting out the rights and obligations of visa-free travel, and on the rules regulating access to the EU labour market”. Fulfilling the final recommendations indicated in the report would allow Georgia to complete its implementation of all VLAP second-phase benchmarks. The Commission would continue to monitor Georgian implementation of the VLAP and report on its progress by the end of 2015.
The fourth progress report of the European Commission on Georgia’s implementation of the VLAP was issued in December 2015. The Commission expressed that Georgia had fulfilled all the benchmarks of its VLAP and it would propose in 2016 to the EU Member States that Georgian citizens be allowed visa-free travel to the Schengen area: “Based on this assessment, and given the outcome of the continuous monitoring and reporting carried out since the launch of the EU-Georgia Visa Liberalisation Dialogue in June 2012, the Commission considers that Georgia meets all the benchmarks set in respect of the four blocks of the second phase of the VLAP”.
Taking into account overall relations between the EU and Georgia and based on the positive assessment of implementation of the VLAP benchmarks, in December 2015 the European Commission proposed to the European Council that Georgia be transferred to the list of countries whose nationals are exempt from visa requirements. In addition to this amendment, a legislative proposal would be put forward to amend Regulation 539/2001 listing the third countries whose nationals must be in possession of visas when crossing external borders and whose nationals are exempt from this requirement, revising the so-called “suspension mechanism”, a special set of measures directed toward temporarily suspending the visa requirements for nationals of a third country. Both amendments were approved on 1 March 2017 and entered into force on 28 March 2017. Since that date, a Georgian national whom holds a valid biometrical passport has the right to enter the Schengen zone without a visa. The visa-free regime has opened a new chapter in EU-Georgia relations, with Georgia as an even more reliable partner of the Union.
In December 2017, the European Commission published its first report on the visa suspension document together with the Commission Staff Working Document. Among other issues, the report concludes that “overall the visa liberalisation benchmarks continue to be fulfilled” and goes on to provide several recommendations for the further enhancement of related areas. One of the recommendations is to “continue campaigns on the rules of visa free travel, finalise the migration analytical and risk analysis systems and step up efforts in addressing the identified root causes of migration”.
The Commission continued to monitor and report on fulfilment of the visa liberalisation commitments related to integrated border management, migration management and asylum. In December 2018 European Commission submitted Second Report under the Visa Suspension Mechanism to the European Parliament and the Council. The report highlights that “Georgia has taken actions identified in the First Report under the Visa Suspension Mechanism” and invoke to address irregular migration challenges of unfounded asylum applications in member states. The Commission Staff Working Document (CSWD) accompanies the Second Report under the Visa Suspension Mechanism, which builds on the information and the assessment provided in the First Report and provides a detailed analysis of the most relevant and recent developments relating to the implementation of the visa liberalisation benchmarks.