By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will allow Ukrainians and Georgians to visit the bloc without a visa after diplomats and lawmakers struck a deal on Thursday to end an internal EU dispute that had been holding up the plan.
Agreement on a mechanism for suspending such visa waivers in emergencies ends mounting embarrassment for some EU leaders who felt the bloc was reneging on pledges to ex-Soviet states it has promised to help as they try to move away from Moscow's orbit.
EU leaders got cold feet about opening doors to more nations after a public backlash that followed last year's influx of more than a million refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa into Europe.
"Almost there. Visa suspension mechanism dispute over. Now the final stretch towards visa free travel for Ukraine and Georgia," said European Council President Donald Tusk, who had warned the long delay threatened the EU's credibility.
Facing strong challenges from anti-immigration parties in elections due in 2017, leading powers France and Germany had pressed for tough controls before backing any new visa deals.
Outstanding formalities mean implementation of the free travel regime for Georgia and Ukraine is still weeks away.
The prospect of easier travel to Europe has been used by governments in Kiev and Tbilisi to win popular backing for painful, EU-sponsored reforms.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko hailed "encouraging news from Brussels" and Mikheil Janelidze, the foreign minister of Georgia, said: "Georgia is Europe and it will become more and more tangible for our people."
Georgia, with only 3.7 million citizens, is seen as an easier case for the EU but has been held hostage by the greater hesitation over Ukraine, which has 45 million people, is geographically closer and is stuck in a conflict with Russia.
Under Thursday's deal, the European Commission or a majority of EU states will be able to swiftly suspend a country's visa exemption for nine months if there is a sharp rise in its citizens overstaying their permitted time in the EU, making multiple asylum requests or causing other problems.
Under a separate deal struck earlier this year with Ankara the EU also envisages easing travel to the bloc for Turks. Under that plan, Turkey promised in return to stop migrants from embarking for Europe from its shores.
But Turkey's failure to fulfill all the conditions of the deal, coupled with anger in Europe over Ankara's crackdown on political opponents following a failed military coup in July, have effectively frozen progress on that accord.
(Additional reporting by Matthias Williams in Kiev, Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Gareth Jones)