The European Commission is due to offer visa-free travel to the citizens of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro this week, triggering criticism of the plan’s alleged inconsistencies and bias against Muslim minorities in the Western Balkans.
Citizens of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro will be offered free travel within the EU’s Schengen area from the start of next year, under plans due to be unveiled tomorrow (14 July) (EurActiv 10/07/09).
The proposal will have to be formally approved by the EU’s 27 justice ministers, although unanimity will not be required.
Schengen area countries include all 27 EU member states with the exception of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Bulgaria and Romania, plus a number of non-EU countries such as Norway and Iceland.
Kosovars, Muslim Bosniaks excluded
The Young European Federalists (JEF), a pro-European political movement which claims no party affiliations, said the move – despite going in the right direction – would create new divisions and unfairly punish citizens in the Western Balkans.
The consequence of offering visa-free travel to the three Western Balkan countries will penalise Muslim Bosniaks and the citizens of Kosovo, JEF claims.
It is likely to be interpreted by the population as “anti-Muslim”, Peter Matjaši?, secretary-general of the Young European Federalists (JEF), told EurActiv.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has benefited from the same ‘roadmap’ for visa liberalisation, but due to inter-ethnic divisions, the country has failed to make progress in its EU accession process. Its citizens thus still need visas to enter the Schengen area.
However, JEF points out that while Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats will be able to claim dual citizenship and visa-free passports, Bosnian Muslims will not have that opportunity.
As for Kosovo, its citizens will remain excluded from the visa liberalisation scheme. Acknowledging EU divisions over the legal status of Kosovo (Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus and Romania have not recognised its independence), JEF sees contradictions in EU policies toward the former Serbian province.
In fact, many residents of Kosovo have applied for new biometric passports issued by the Serbian government, but the European Commission says their holders will not benefit from visa-free travel if they are residents of Kosovo.
“If Kosovo is considered part of Serbia, Kosovars should be allowed visa-free travel like the rest of the country. In contrast, if Kosovo is recognised as an independent state, it should be brought on the road to visa liberalisation,” JEF claims.
JEF stops short of claiming that the visa liberalisation schemes punish only the Western Balkans’ Muslim population. However, it quotes a 24-old Bosniak who grew up in Sarajevo during the siege of 1992-1995, who said: “Victims are expected to accept that [war criminal still-at-large] Ratko Mladic will have a better passport than them, [and will] thus be allowed to travel visa free.”
Diplomats recently told EurActiv that there were fears in EU circles of a wave of ethnic Albanian migration, especially from impoverished and crime-ravaged Kosovo, but also from within Albania itself.
“The Commission’s plan to exclude Bosnia-Herzegovina from visa liberalisation in the Western Balkans adds insult to injury to the people who suffered most during the war that raged less than two decades ago," said the Greens/European Free Alliance in a press release.
"Bosnia-Herzegovina’s EU aspirations are being hamstrung by the Bosnian Serb leadership, who are agitating for secession. By granting visa-free EU access to Serbia, the Commission de facto extends the same privileges to Bosnian Serbs because of their dual citizenship, while blocking and discriminating against Bosnian Muslims," the ecologists added.
"Bosnian Croats already enjoy visa-free travel to EU member states because of dual citizenship with Croatia. Visa liberalisation is a rare opportunity to foster hope and reconciliation in the Western Balkans. The proposed uneven-handed action will instead formalise ethnic divisions, reward the obstruction tactics of nationalist politicians and deepen resentment in the region," the political group deplored.
Schengen area countries include all 27 EU member states with the exception of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Bulgaria and Romania, plus a number of non-EU countries such as Norway and Iceland. Liechetenstein, Switzerland and Cyprus are yet to implement the visa-free agreement with the EU.
Up to now, except for Croatia, all the Western Balkan countries and Turkey are included on the so-called Schengen visa 'black' list, which requires citizens to obtain visas before traveling to the EU's border-free area.
Historically, the citizens of the former Yugoslavia under Tito enjoyed visa-free travel throughout Europe, and a significant diaspora was established over time in many EU countries. However, amid a deteriorating political and economic climate, Yugoslavia found itself on the EU's first common 'black' visa list, adopted in 1995.
Last year, the European Commission put in place a 'roadmap' and 'benchmarks' for visa liberalisation for Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina (EurActiv 26/05/08). Kosovo appears to be a 'sui generis' case, as it is not recognised by all EU countries.
Ever since the EU's 'black' visa list was established, only two countries have managed to get visa requirements lifted ahead of their accession – Bulgaria entered a visa-free regime with the Schengen countries in April 2001, followed by Romania eight months later.
Bulgaria and Romania are not yet members of Schengen but are on track to enter the visa-free regime within the next couple of years.