A vote by the European Parliament to approve visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the European Union has not been postponed until April, Maud Noyon, the press officer of European Parliament President Martin Schulz, told the Kyiv Post on Dec. 15.

Earlier in the day, the date of April 3 appeared on the parliament’s official website as an indicative date for EU approval of visa-free travel for Ukrainians session. A date in early 2017 had been expected, and the news that the coveted visa-free travel had supposedly been postponed quickly spread among Ukraine’s media.

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Noyon explained that it would be a mistake to say the date is final. No exact date has been determined yet.

The April 3 date appeared on the parliament’s website automatically as a forecast data.

“The date is only indicative and there never was any decision to postpone,” Marjory van den Broeke, head of the press service of the European Parliament told the Kyiv Post. “Nothing has changed compared to the earlier situation. On the contrary, now that EU governments and the Parliament have agreed on a mechanism to suspend temporarily visa liberalization under special circumstances, parliament is hoping for a quick conclusion on visa-free travel for Ukrainian citizens.”

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The last obstacle right now is that the Netherlands still didn’t ratify the Association Agreement with Ukraine – the only one among the 28 member states. The Dutch were concerned that the agreement may ensure the country’s future EU membership perspectives as well as any military help from EU.

The European Parliament and the Dutch side found a compromise on Dec. 15, and now the Netherlands are expected to ratify the agreement in January – then the final negotiations could be held earlier than April.

“Now the responsibility lies with the Netherlands. The ratification is important not only for Ukraine, but also for Europe’s geopolitical standing and credibility. We are counting on our Dutch colleagues,” said European Council President Donald Tusk at the press conference after the meeting on Dec. 15.

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According to UNIAN during the press conference after the EU Parliament session late on Dec. 15, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he is going to include the ratification agreement on the agenda of the Dutch Parliament as soon as possible.

On Dec. 15, the European Parliament also voted for the visa suspension mechanism for third countries, thus removing the last obstacle for the visa-free travel.

Now, the ratification negotiations are expected to be held in short terms.

President of European Union Parliament Martin Schulz hopes to settle all the formalities with the ratification of the agreement in January.

“It is time for the Council to stop dragging its feet,” he said on Dec. 15. “Granting visa-free travel to the Schengen area for Ukrainian citizens would be another much-needed message of support. The European Parliament has been ready to negotiate since September, and we sincerely hope to finalize the agreement with the Council in January.”

In his speech, the president said it was important for the EU to keep supporting Ukraine through political and economic cooperation.

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“The EU-Ukraine Association agreement is the agreement for which thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in the EuroMaidan,” Shulz said. “An agreement because of which Russia illegally annexed Crimea and supported a war in the Donbas, leading to the loss of the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians, and 1.7 million  people being displaced.”

The EU Council website has reported on Dec. 15 the Council reconfirmed its commitment to international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine as well as the conclusion of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, including the establishment of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area.

Suspension conditions

Under the new rules of the visa suspension mechanism bill, adopted by the EU Parliament on Dec. 15, third countries’ visa waiver deals with the EU may be suspended. Visa-free travel can be canceled in several cases:

When there is a substantial increase in the number of nationals of that country who are refused entry or stay illegally in EU territory;

When there is a substantial increase in the number of unfounded asylum applications;

When there is a decrease in cooperation on readmissions (returns of migrants), or an increase in risks or imminent threats to public policy or internal security related to nationals of the third country concerned.

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The decision on suspension can be taken only by all the 28 EU member states. The suspension lasts for nine months but can be prolonged if needed. During that period the citizens of Ukraine will have to apply for visas if they want to travel to the Schengen Zone, like they do today.

Dutch factor

But while the visa-free deal is coming to closure, another key cooperation deal between the EU and Ukraine, the Association Agreement is stumbling.

The agreement, signed in 2014, has been ratified by all of the countries of the EU but one: the Netherlands.

The Netherlands held a national referendum in April 2016 where the nation voted against ratifying the agreement. While the referendum was non-binding, the Dutch government has to take the result into account for political reasons.

And they have, according to a Reuters report. Citing their sources in the EU diplomatic circles, Reuters reported on Dec. 12 that the Netherlands was preparing to demand limitations for Ukraine.

According to Reuters, the Netherlands prepared a draft document that rules out financial and security guarantees for Ukraine, and states that Ukrainians wouldn’t be given the right to live and work in Schengen Zone countries.

The demands, however, aren’t undermining the agreement, but rather rule out the possibility that the agreement may give additional preferences to Ukraine in the future. Such as a perspective of the future membership in the European Union or any military help from the bloc.

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Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s permanent representative in the Council of Europe emphasized that the Dutch demands concern only the Association Agreement.

“That means Ukrainians won’t get the right to work or live in the EU only in terms of the agreement,” said Kuleba. “Nobody forbids you (Ukrainians) to work or live in the EU now if you have a permission from one of the member states (of the EU).”

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