Thank You for the Music, but I’d Rather Have Visa-Free Entry

Musical triumph: Ukraine's winning Eurovision entry from 2022. Image: Michael Doherty / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Hosting the Eurovision Song Contest offers Downing Street a glittering opportunity to learn from Ukraine.

This month, the UK will host the Eurovision Song Contest on behalf of Ukraine, 2022’s worthy winner. Last year was the third time that an entry from Ukraine had emerged victorious. As it prepares to welcome thousands of music fans, the UK – and specifically the UK government – could learn an important lesson from Ukraine’s first time hosting the contest in 2005. That year, recognising that the country’s visa regime was going to deter fans from travelling to watch the competition, Kyiv temporarily lifted visa requirements for EU citizens for four months. Once the resulting economic benefits became clear, the visa requirement never returned.

Earlier this year at RUSI, we welcomed a cohort of 11 anti-corruption activists and investigative journalists from Ukraine for a two-week study tour in Brussels and London. While the trip was rewarding for all involved and the welcome provided by government officials, fellow journalists and civil society activists was unwaveringly warm, the bureaucratic welcome from the UK could not have been less inspiring.

The UK government has been a resolute and reliable supporter of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since day one of the Kremlin's war in Ukraine. Words of support, political visits and military aid have flowed consistently – at times in stark contrast to the UK's European partners. After a patchy start, Ukrainian refugees have also been welcomed by the Home Office.

But in one area, the UK has been considerably stingier than its allies. For Ukrainians wishing to visit the EU, since 2017, Brussels has offered visa-free access for up to 90 days. The UK, never part of the Schengen visa-free area, did not have to follow suit and chose not to. Today, over a year since Vladimir Putin’s senseless, illegal and outrageous full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, it remains the case that in contrast to the EU’s welcoming position, other than for ministerial delegations, the UK requires Ukrainians to submit themselves to an extensive, tedious and tortuous visa application process – made all the more complex by the fact that to conduct the necessary biometric checks to accompany an application, they almost certainly have to first travel from their homes in Ukraine to a UK embassy located in (you guessed it) the EU.

Over a year since Putin’s invasion began, the UK still requires Ukrainians to submit themselves to an extensive, tedious and tortuous visa application process

The process costs hundreds of pounds just for the basic service. And when the cost of travel and accommodation in Warsaw (the most common hub for applications) is included, the necessary outlay spirals rapidly. That’s before one considers the security risks and organisational headaches of travelling across Ukraine.

This is not just an inconvenience for those from Ukraine wishing to visit the UK in general, and Liverpool in particular for the songfest. With the UK co-hosting the Ukraine Reconstruction Conference in June, it should also be a source of considerable embarrassment for the government that those whom the conference is supposed to support must struggle over bureaucratic hurdles just to attend.

It's time Downing Street and the Home Office learned a valuable Eurovision lesson and addressed this travesty – a position that is not only unacceptably rent-seeking, but also runs counter to the generosity shown by the British people who have opened their homes to welcome refugees from Ukraine.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Tom Keatinge

Director, CFS

Centre for Finance and Security

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