Visa liberalisation – we trust, but verify


One way to extend the European sphere of influence is to step up our contacts and cooperation with our neighbors. Visa exemptions for Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership countries fulfill this purpose. Visiting, communication, cultural exchange, movement of workers and business connections have all become easier. This is all good, but does the increased interaction also involve any threats? What kinds of threats, and how can Estonia protect itself? These issues are discussed in the Estonian report for a recent study by the European Migration Network.

Visa exemptions:

2009: Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Republic of Serbia
2010: Republic of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina
2014: Republic of Moldova
2017: Ukraine, Georgia


Visa exemptions are not granted lightly

The European Union (EU) has set the precondition that in order to obtain a visa exemption, the neighbouring country has to become as European as possible. For instance, in the field of migration and asylum, the country needs to ensure the security of its documents and efficient control of its borders; protect human rights and its citizens so that they would have no reason to apply for asylum in the EU; and readmit its citizens who are staying in the EU without a legal basis.

Furthermore, the European Commission is constantly monitoring whether countries continue to meet these requirements and still merit the privilege of visa exemption. Visa-free countries are noticed of their shortcomings, and, if this is disregarded, visa exemptions can be suspended. For instance, this can happen if there is a surge in organised crime originating from these countries, or if their citizens keep exceeding the allowed period of stay (i.e., up to 90 days in any 180-day period)

Alleviating the labour shortage

The impact of visa liberalisation with the Balkan countries was not really felt in Estonia — unlike the impact of visa-free movement between Estonia and the former Soviet countries of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The most prominent consequence of visa liberalisation was the simplification of short-term employment for Ukrainian citizens. In 2017, altogether 5589 Ukrainian citizens were registered for short-term employment in Estonia; in 2018, this number almost tripled. This increase was not only due to visa liberalisation, but also Estonia’s aggravating labour shortage and amendments to the Aliens’ Act from the last summer that aimed to alleviate the lack of skilled workers. When local workforce is lacking, new buildings will be built with the help of foreign nationals.

Estonia trusts, but verifies

Increased movement has brought along an increase in illegal employment, which is often accompanied by labour exploitation. Living for Tomorrow, an NPO involved in the prevention of human trafficking and victim support, has acknowledged that a new group of clients has emerged for them – namely, construction workers with Ukrainian, Belarusian or Georgian citizenship, who receive proper employment contracts only when inspectors visit the site; who work for more hours than foreseen in the contract; whose overtime is not taken into account; who are threatened with deportation by the employers and often fired during the probationary period in order to optimise the labour costs.

In 2018, the police identified 243 cases of employment of a foreign national staying in Estonia without a legal basis and 139 cases where the employment conditions of a foreign national had been violated. From the last year, the police identified 82 cases of employers violating the employment conditions of foreign nationals working in Estonia, 17 cases of hiring illegally-staying foreign nationals and 3 cases of paying foreign nationals less than the average salary.

Stern penalties

Concurrently with visa liberalisation and simplification of requirements for short-term employment, Estonia tightened up the penalties for violations. In the last summer, the maximum fine for employers using illegal workforce was raised from 3200 euros to 32 000 euros. Also, companies that have employed foreign nationals staying in Estonia illegally or that have violated foreign nationals’ employment conditions are now excluded from participating in public procurements. Furthermore, employers are now required to register also those Ukrainians who come to work in Estonia through Polish staffing agencies.

For other problems that had been expected to intensify due to visa liberalisation – i.e., increase in asylum applications, overstays of the allowed period, increase in crime – no significant changes were observed in Estonia.

To learn more, read the Synthesis Report of the study and its brief summaries in EMN Inform and EMN Flash!