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Why and How Ukraine Should Open Up to the EU Now

Why and How Ukraine Should Open Up to the EU Now

Armed men in military fatigues block access to government buildings in eastern Ukraine’s rebel-held Lugansk on November 22, 2017.
The patrols began after an apparent standoff between the rebel region’s self-proclaimed leader Igor Plotnitsky and the interior minister, who’s been accused of seeking to destabilise the war-scarred city. / AFP PHOTO / Aleksey FILIPPOV (Photo credit should read ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Kyiv should foster Ukraine’s European integration, economic growth and national security by offering EU citizens instantaneous residence and work permission

Recent Eurostat data reveals that Ukrainians have been granted the most residency permits of any nationals in the EU last year. During 2017 alone, approximately 662,000 Ukrainians received such permission to live and work in the EU. Ukrainians are now integrating into Europe with an annual number roughly equivalent to the population of the official EU accession candidate country Montenegro.

More and more EU states – other than Poland and similar traditional destinations for immigrants from Ukraine – are starting to appreciate the quality of Ukrainians’ work and services as well as their adaptability and civility. Moreover, some countries are planning to open up further their labor markets for skilled migrants. For instance, Germany is discussing – not only, of course, out of altruistic reasons – a new immigration law. This trend is likely to continue during the next years. There is a chance that a post-Brexit UK could, in the future, accept Ukrainian labor under rules similar to those for other Europeans.

For hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians characteristically European liberties such as the freedom to work legally, live long-term and sell their services in the whole of the EU and European Economic Area are turning into reality. These rights are known as the freedoms of movement of labor and services of the European Single Market. They include the right of residence for persons with independent financial means.

However, this particular type of European integration of Ukraine is still largely a one-way street. There is very little movement of people in the opposite direction, i.e. from the EU into Ukraine. One reason for the minimal immigration of Westerners is that it requires a lot of paperwork for foreign citizens to acquire a Ukrainian residency and work permission. Ukrainian immigration policies are generally liberal towards applicants from Western states. Yet, the cumbersome Ukrainian procedures to receive a temporary (one-year) or long-term (ten-year) residency permit is today an effort that most EU citizens have become unaccustomed to, in view of the uncomplicated intra-European regulations for them. These problems are aggravated by some – to put it mildly – particulars of Ukraine’s post-Soviet central bureaucracy. As a result – of not only these, but also of other – circumstances, EU citizens settling in Ukraine, even for a limited period of time, are still few and far between.

Recently, Ukraine has started a process to change its constitution designed to make – even more explicitly than before – the country’s integration into the EU and NATO official objectives of the Ukrainian state. Ukrainian politicians, activists, intellectuals and diplomats continue to reiterate vis-à-vis their Western peers Ukraine’s deep desire for an as soon as and as full as possible inclusion into the West’s major organizations. Yet, Ukraine’s gradual incorporation into the West is not only dependent on larger geopolitical circumstances, and on Brussels’s assessments of how many EU and NATO standards Kyiv has implemented as a result of its domestic reform efforts. European integration is also a matter that Ukraine can foster itself, independently of Brussels, by modifying its foreign, immigration, labor, and demographic policies. It can, moreover, do so long before Ukraine’s negotiations for its accession to the EU and NATO even begin.

After the Orange Revolution, Ukraine took, in 2005, the unilateral decision to abolish visa requirements for short-term visits for citizens from the EU and some other countries. Twelve years later, in 2017, the EU responded in kind by allowing Ukrainian citizens, with a biometric passport, to freely travel to and move within the Schengen Area, for a short term without a visum. To be sure, the success of the EU’s Visa Liberalization Action Plan for Ukraine leading to this long-awaited result was not only dependent on Ukrainian visa regulations for foreign citizens. Yet, it helped a lot politically that Kyiv could point Brussels to the already liberalized travel for EU passport holders to and in Ukraine.

After this positive experience, it is time for Kyiv to take the next step for attracting Europeans to Ukraine, integrate the country more closely with the Union, and prepare Ukraine’s accession to the EU. This step could also concern citizens of other friendly Western countries like Switzerland, Norway, the US, Canada or Australia. Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council), should make it easy to settle for those Westerners who would consider living, studying and/or working in Ukraine temporarily or permanently. For economic reasons and out of Ukraine’s own national interests, Kyiv should unilaterally grant all citizens of the EU and some other countries those freedoms of movement of labor and services foreseen within the European Single Market – which Ukraine aims to join anyway. This includes the right to live in Ukraine as person of independent financial means – a right that is one of the privileges of European citizenship within the EU.

These freedoms and rights for Western citizens should be granted by a new Ukrainian law. The liberties should be framed, in that law, in the same fashion as those that apply to people moving within the EU. That would mean that these freedoms can be enjoyed without any need to apply for residency and with no bureaucratic procedure beyond a simple registration of one’s living address in Ukraine. All that should be needed for an immigrant to register would be a passport of an EU member state or of a similarly friendly country. Such registration should be sufficient to start working as an employee in a Ukrainian company, to found a business, to study in a Ukrainian educational institution, to work as a freelancer and pay taxes, or to live in Ukraine as a pensioner.

Such a generous regulation would not only make life much easier for Western friends and enthusiasts of Ukraine willing to move for a time period or even for good to Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa or Kharkiv. Adopting such a policy would also benefit Ukraine as a state and nation. Most importantly, Ukraine currently loses hundreds of thousands of people every year due to a negative birth-death ratio, and large outmigration – mainly, but not only, to the West. Theoretically, Ukraine should thus welcome every immigrant who comes to the country, as such new residents soften the nation’s enormous yearly demographic decline.

When moving in and out becomes an uncomplicated matter, this will mean more economic exchange with the West. More foreign direct investment will come when it is easier for entrepreneurs, managers, specialists or even entire companies to relocate from the EU to Ukraine. It can also mean more capital inflow from the EU into Ukraine, as permissive residency and work practices will make using such capital in Ukraine less complicated. Western citizens living for longer or permanently in Ukraine will demand from Ukrainian governmental offices, commercial companies, medical hospitals, public or private schools, and many other institutions attention, accountability, reliability and transparency, at the same level and of the same quality as they are used to from their home countries, thus increasing pressure from below to raise service standards and apply best practices.

Moreover, Westerners moving for longer periods to Ukraine would contribute to a gradual improvement of the country’s foreign relations and image. EU citizens living in Ukraine will mean more positive and realistic stories about Ukrainian matters communicated back to these citizens’ home states. More people from the West will be coming to visit their relatives and friends who live in Ukraine. These visitors too will contribute to a clearer as well as better image of Ukraine abroad.

More Western citizens living in Ukraine will lead to more opportunities for Ukrainian citizens to practice and learn EU languages. It will demonstrate to many in the EU that Ukraine is a pro-European country that offers opportunities for EU citizens. More exchange between Ukraine and EU countries and more Western visitors will enable the Ukrainian perspective on vital political and economic interest to reach a larger international audience.

Last but not least, immigration from the West would also have a security dimension. If tens of thousands of EU citizens move to and start living in Ukraine over the next years for various reasons, this will substantially increase the interest of Western consulates in Kyiv, in the stability and development of the Ukrainian state. When freelancers, employees, students or pensioners from the EU settle in far larger numbers than today across the country, this will make their and thus Ukraine’s security a higher priority for Brussels and the Union’s member states.

It is odd that Ukraine has not already taken such an easy and budget-neutral step towards satisfying a range of its urgent national interests. To be sure, extended residency and labor freedoms will – like all liberalizations – also create problems. Western immigration could, for instance, increase competition for certain categories of jobs, or for rents in top residential areas. One could imagine debtors or criminals from the EU trying to hide in a large European non-Union country, with permissive residency policies.

Yet, even these primarily negative repercussions could have secondarily positive after-effects. For instance, Ukrainian and EU law enforcement agencies will have to cooperate closer than today, in order to jointly catch, extradite and prosecute Western fugitives, on Ukrainian soil. This will foster Ukraine’s European integration in the fields of internal security and police matters. While some Ukrainians will lose when more Western-born legal residents in Ukraine operate easily on various Ukrainian markets, such as labor, real estate or services, Ukraine’s economy as a whole will win from higher competition.

The positive results of an opening of Ukraine for Western citizens will far outweigh possible negative upshots. Ukraine is in an especially difficult situation today. The urgency and extraordinariness of her demographic, economic and geopolitical challenges demand especially swift solutions and resolute action. Letting citizens from EU and other friendly countries easily settle on its quickly depopulating territory is an obvious way for Ukraine to reduce some of its most challenging problems regarding her demography, security and economy. It is a measure that should be taken by the Ukrainian parliament earlier rather than later.

[An abridged version of this article was earlier published in the “Ukraine Alert” of the Atlantic Council of the US, in Washington, DC.]

ANDREJ NOVAK is an independent expert on Eastern and Southeastern Europe, foreign policy and security as well as European integration, with Berlin-based European Cosmopolitan Consulting.

ANDREAS UMLAND is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and General Editor of the ibidem­-Verlag book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” distributed by Columbia University Press.



Andreas Umland

Andreas Umland, Dr.Phil. (FU Berlin), Ph.D. (Cambridge), is a Research Fellow at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Senior Expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv, and Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He has held fellow- & lectureships at Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Urals State University, Shevchenko University of Kyiv, and Catholic University of Eichstaett. He is also General Editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" ( and on the Boards of Directors of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies (, Boris Nemtsov Academic Center for the Study of Russia ( as well as German-Ukrainian NGO "Kyiv Dialogue" (

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