Europe: Council takes first step towards new EU rules on suspending visa-free travel for third countries


Published: 13 March 2024

EU member states’ ambassadors (Coreper) have agreed their position on a draft regulation which updates a mechanism that allows the EU to suspend visa-free travel for third countries whose nationals are exempt from the visa obligation when travelling to the Schengen area. This new law, when adopted, will boost the EU’s toolbox to counter situations when visa-free travel is being abused or works against the interests of the EU.

New grounds to suspend visa-free regime

Under the updated mechanism, the EU will be given the following new grounds to suspend the visa-free regime:

  • lack of alignment of a visa-free third country with the EU’s visa policy, in cases where this may lead to increased arrivals to the EU e.g. because of this country’s geographical proximity to the EU
  • the operation of an investor citizenship scheme, whereby citizenship is granted without any genuine link to the third country concerned, in exchange for pre-determined payments or investments
  • hybrid threats and deficiencies in document security legislation or procedures

Member states have decided to also include the possibility to suspend the visa-free regime in case of a significant and abrupt deterioration in the EU’s external relations with a third country, in particular when it relates to human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The following existing grounds remain in place: a substantial increase in the number of third-country nationals who are refused entry or found overstaying; a substantial increase in the number of unfounded asylum applications from the nationals of a third country for which the recognition rate is low; a decrease in cooperation with the EU on readmission of people that have been asked to leave the EU territory and a risk or imminent threat to public policy or internal security (e.g. because of an increase in criminal offences).

Another ground which already forms part of the current mechanism i.e. the failure to meet the visa liberalisation benchmarks by partners that have been through a visa liberalisation dialogue to become visa free is now spelled out more clearly in the new regulation.

Suspension thresholds

The Council negotiating mandate also details the thresholds to trigger the mechanism. These thresholds quantify increases in: cases of refused entry and overstay; unfounded asylum applications; and serious criminal offences. Member states have set this number at 30% (contrary to 50% in the Commission proposal). On the other hand, the threshold to assess if an asylum recognition rate should be considered as low has been fixed at 20% (instead of the proposed 4%).

Duration of the temporary suspension

The duration of temporary suspension of the visa exemption has been increased from 9 to 12 months and can be extended by another 24 months (instead of 18 months under the current system). During this suspension phase, the European Commission will engage in a dialogue with the third country in order to take steps to remedy the circumstances that led to the suspension.

If no solution is found to remedy the situation, the EU can decide to permanently revoke the visa-free travel regime.

Reference period

The reference period for identifying the existence of circumstances which may lead to a suspension has been amended to cover at least two months. This will make it possible to take longer reference periods (e.g. annual trends) into consideration, not just sudden changes in the relevant circumstances.

Next steps

Today’s agreement on a common position will allow the Council to enter into negotiations with the European Parliament, once it has settled on its own position, in order to agree on a final legal text.


While visa-free travel offers important gains for our economies as well as the tourism and travel sectors and is the cornerstone of social and cultural exchanges, it can also be a source of significant migration and security challenges.

Overstays by visa-free travellers, for instance, lead to an increase in irregular migration. This also happens when high numbers of unfounded asylum applications are made by nationals from visa-free countries. Such an increase in asylum applications can also happen when people use countries that are close to the EU, and whose visa policy is not aligned with that of the EU, as a stepping stone for travelling irregularly into the EU.

The suspension mechanism – in place in its current form since 2018 – works as a safeguard against the abuse of visa-free travel. It allows for the EU to temporarily suspend the visa exemption under certain conditions. However, the current rules did not take into account some recent developments affecting the EU.

The EU currently has a visa-free regime in place with 61 third countries. Nationals from these countries can enter the Schengen area for short stays of up to 90 days in any 180-day period without a visa.

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