A Spanish initiative to ease visa requirements for Russians and EU citizens alike has enough political support among European leaders to continue even after Madrid's six-month EU presidency ends this summer, EU officials said.
"In Europe we appreciate the Russians, and we would be happy to see more Russians," Spanish Ambassador Juan Antonio Pujol told reporters Wednesday.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos announced during a visit to Moscow last week that Madrid would push for a road map toward easier visa rules for both sides.
Pujol said the plan was broadly supported among the EU's 27 member states, explaining that no country voiced opposition to Moratinos' initiative during an earlier meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers.
Past pledges by European and Russian officials to lift cumbersome visa restrictions have led to little results, and deficiencies in Russia's security and border guard systems have fueled security concerns among EU members.
Fernando Valenzuela, head of the EU delegation to Russia, said this was a long-term project and "technical difficulties" needed to be overcome.
Pujol, the Spanish ambassador, did not offer a time frame Wednesday but merely said the objective was "to reach the horizon" of visa-free travel. "We want a large European Russian space extremely friendly to citizens," he said.
As a sign of his country's willingness, he pointed out that the number of Spanish multiple-entry visas given to Russian citizens rose from 10,000 in 2006 to 250,000 in 2009. For the same years, the total number of Spanish visas for Russians grew from 380,000 to 400,000, he said.
Spain is the last country to hold the old-style rotating EU presidency because it had been planned before the Lisbon Treaty was ratified last fall. Future presidencies, starting with Belgium in July, will focus on internal EU affairs, while external relations with countries like Russia will be managed by the new permanent president of the European Council and the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, Valenzuela said.
In an indication that Madrid is keeping a low profile as president, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Louis Zapatero will not travel to the next EU-Russia summit in May, an EU official said Wednesday. "It is even unclear, if [Foreign Minister] Moratinos will come, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because a final decision had not been made.
As such, council President Herman van Rompuy and foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton might come to the summit alone. The May 30 summit was originally planned in Rostov-on-Don but is now slated for Moscow, the official said.
Valenzuela said the Lisbon Treaty reform would probably make EU foreign policy easier because it allows shorter, less formal contacts. "Formerly, everything had to be officially agreed with the national presidency. Now we can be more flexible," he said.