Parliament clears visa-free travel for Albanians, Bosnians

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The European Parliament yesterday (7 October) backed visa-free travel to Europe's Schengen area for Albanian and Bosnian citizens, setting the EU assembly on a collision course with France, which opposes the proposal following its controversial crackdown on illegal Roma camps.

The draft bill, which was endorsed by an overwhelming majority in Parliament yesterday (7 October), faces stiff opposition from France when it is submitted for approval by the 27 EU member states in the EU Council of Ministers.

"I now hope that we will have an agreement with ministers at first reading," said the European Parliament's rapporteur on the resolution, Slovenian MEP Tanja Fajon (Socialists & Democrats).

"This would allow citizens of the two countries to travel freely to spend Christmas with relatives elsewhere in Europe," she said.

France is opposed to lifting visa requirements for Bosnian and Albanian citizens. Paris is still suffering from  the political repercussions of its controversial expulsion of illegal Roma migrants, some of whom were EU nationals of Romanian and Bulgarian origin.

French officials criticised the European Commission for pursuing visa liberalisation talks with Western Balkan countries for "political reasons" and neglecting the "risks" associated with opening up the EU's borders.

However, Paris does not have the power to block a decision by the EU Council of Ministers, which represents all 27 EU member states. Indeed, since the Amsterdam Treaty in 1999, justice and home affairs are considered a Community matter.

Voting mathematics

According to EURACTIV sources, a few countries in the Council are supportive of France, but their votes will not suffice to block the decision.

The Netherlands and Denmark have frequently been mentioned as hostile to opening the Schengen visa-free area to Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Qualified majority voting (QMV) in the Council requires a minimum of 255 votes out of 345 (74.8%). The three countries opposed to the proposal have 49 votes in total and are far from creating a blocking minority.

"The French can do nothing. But they can suspend Schengen," MEP Charles Tannock (European Conservatives and Reformists; UK) told EURACTIV.

Tannock was referring to the fact that Schengen countries have the right to temporarily introduce border controls  by invoking a national emergency.

Tannock also believes France could delay the Council vote on political grounds.

"There is a problem, to be frank. I'm not absolutely happy. Albania has a lot of organised crime," Tannock said.

"I am happy that the Albanian and Bosnian people will soon have the possibility to travel without a visa to EU Schengen countries," said European People's Party group shadow rapporteur Anna Maria Corazza Bildt MEP (Sweden).

"Personally, I shared the plight of the siege in Sarajevo and the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina for years. The plea of a young generation who felt locked in and left behind has been close to my heart since I entered this House in the summer of 2009," said Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, who is the wife of Carl Bildt, a peace negotiator at the time.

"I call upon the Council to respect its undertaking in the Joint Declaration adopted under the Swedish Presidency to grant the visa regime as soon as possible. The people of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania should see the light at the end of the tunnel and be able to travel without a visa to the EU Schengen area by Christmas," concluded Corazza Bildt.

Monika Flašíková Be?ová, Vice-President of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), in charge of civil liberties, justice and home affairs (Slovakia), stressed that with regard to Albania, the decision was by no means a sign of support for the centre-right government.

"Concerning Albania, we repeat the European Parliament's demands in July that all political parties should assume their responsibilities and engage in constructive political dialogue. We accept the argument by our sister party, the Socialist Party of Albania, that support for visa-free travel will benefit the people."  

"This is a measure to help the people. As far as Albania is concerned, it is by no means an endorsement of the present government," Flašíková Be?ová said.

ALDE MEP Sarah Ludford (Liberal Democrats; UK) insisted that visa liberalisation should not be abused. "A visa waiver is of course a privilege not to be abused only for short-term tourist, visitor and business travel. With the two states concerned having fulfilled all the required conditions concerning law enforcement, corruption and illegal migration, it would be a betrayal of a solemn 'road map' promise of long standing for any EU member state now to block it," Ludford said.

Schengen is a village at the border between Luxembourg, France and Germany, where on 14 June 1985 an agreement to gradually abolish checks at common borders was signed between those countries, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Gradually, the process was taken further. In 1995, border controls were abolished between Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

Today, the Schengen border-free area consists of 26 member states: 23 EU countries (all except Bulgaria, Romania, Ireland and the UK) as well as three associated countries: Norway, Iceland and Switzerland.

The UK and Ireland decided to stay outside the Schengen area.

Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus only partially apply the Schengen acquis at the moment and checks are therefore still carried out at the borders with those three member states.

  • 8 Oct.: Meeting of EU justice and home affairs (JHA) ministers (Luxembourg).
  • 8-9 Nov.: Meeting of EU justice and home affairs (JHA) ministers (Brussels).
  • 2-3 Dec.: Meeting of EU justice and home affairs (JHA) ministers (Brussels)

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