Sword of Damocles hangs over visa liberalisation

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The EU yesterday (8 November) lifted visa requirements for citizens from Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, an unprecedented monitoring mechanism has been set up which could reintroduce visas for several Western Balkan countries should difficulties arise.

Citizens of Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina who possess biometric passports will be able to travel to and throughout the Schengen area without a visa, EU ministers decided yesterday. The measure, which will become effective by mid-December, will allow those nationals to spend Christmas in the border-free EU Schengen space.

The decision sees Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina join Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, who joined the visa free regime on 19 December 2009 (see 'Background').

However, several EU countries were affected negatively by that visa liberalisation policy. In particular, a wave of asylum seekers from Macedonia and Serbia, mainly Roma of Albanian ethnicity, hit Sweden, Belgium and Germany.

To address the problem, EU ministers decided to put in place a follow-up mechanism for the visa liberalisation process in the Western Balkans. This mechanism can be triggered for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also for Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

According to a Council communiqué, the mechanism allows the Commission to propose if necessary the suspension of visa-free travel, especially in case of difficulties. The Commission is asked to carefully monitor the situation and report back regularly to the Council and the European Parliament.

France, which had opposed visa liberalisation for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, did not vote against the decision during the meeting. French Immigration Minister Eric Besson told journalists that his country could not deny the fact that Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina had met the conditions required for visa liberalisation.

France believes in visa liberalisation, Besson said, but cautioned that the boom of asylum requests from Serbia and Macedonia was not sustainable.

He added that France could not simply tell Tirana and Sarajevo, "please excuse us, but we will ask you to pay for the last two countries before you [Serbia and Macedonia] who disappointed us".

But the minister stressed that visa-free regimes would be suspended if there were drifts away from the process.

Greek border problem

Besson said the ministers had held unusually frank discussions about what he called the porous Greek-Turkish border in the area of the River Evros, where thousands of illegal immigrants have been crossing into EU territory lately.

The French official, who a few days ago visited the border area in question, said his colleagues had spoken to young illegal immigrants in Greek camps who told them that they wanted to reach France.

Asked by EURACTIV to say whether France was opposed to Bulgaria and Romania joining the Schengen space, Besson said this problem would be addressed in due time. Bulgaria and Romania hope to join the EU border-free area in early 2011.

Regarding Bulgaria and Romania joining the Schengen area and becoming more vulnerable to asylum seekers crossing into Greece from Turkey, Besson said this was an additional reason for France to be vigilant.

UK MEP Sarah Ludford, Liberal Democrat spokeswoman on European justice and human rights - who drafted the European Parliament foreign affairs committee's opinion endorsing the move - said:

"Freer travel will broaden the international outlook of Bosnians and Albanians, and in particular these countries' next generation of leaders. Fostering the links between the Western Balkans and the European Union will reduce the potential for our South-Eastern neighbours to revert to nationalism, conflict and ethnic hatred, making them and us safer as a result."

"However, the hard work will not be over for Bosnia and Albania. Their authorities like those of the other Western Balkan countries relieved of visa demands must be vigilant that the scheme is not abused, as that could well bring us back to square one."

Ludford also said she hoped that successful Schengen visa liberalisation may also encourage the UK to review its own visa requirements for Balkan nationals.

Dutch Green MEP Marije Cornelissen said: "The final obstacle has been cleared for the belated but welcome inclusion of Bosnia and Albania in the EU's visa-free travel scheme. We welcome that the opposition in Council - notably from France - was overcome and that ministers approved the decision unanimously."

"This important decision will give a crucial boost to the citizens of these two countries - giving them the same rights and privileges as their neighbours - and it is important that the EU has decided this with one voice," Cornelissen said. 

Greens/European Free Alliance foreign affairs spokesperson and European Parliament rapporteur on Kosovo, Austrian MEP Ulrike Lunacek, said: "Today's decision is another step in the progress of the Balkan countries towards their European destiny, but the case of Kosovo is now all the more pressing. It is now the last remaining exception to the rule of the inclusion of Balkan countries in the EU's visa-free travel scheme."

"We urge the Commission to move to immediately resolve this anomaly. While a small minority of member states still does not recognise Kosovo as an independent state, this is no reason to deny its citizens the right to the visa-free travel that is now offered to all others in the region," Lunacek said.

UKIP MEP Gerard Batten, his party's spokesman on civil liberties, said: "This European Council decision will mean that many more people will come to live in the UK."

"The Schengen Agreement may be the law, but means freer immigration in practice. This is on top of all the EU migrants from Eastern Europe post-2004 and now the newly announced immigrants from India," Batten said.

"The bottom line is that Britain in overcrowded. David Cameron is being irresponsible letting so many new people in. We can only get back control of our immigration system by withdrawing from the political union that is the EU," he declared.

"Given that Bosnian President [Alija] Izetbegovic gave a general amnesty to Al Qaeda terrorists in the 1990s, this report also increases the danger of Islamic terrorists gaining easy access to Britain. This is a very bad deal for British citizens," Batten concluded.

The EU decided on 16 July 2009 that citizens of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia should be able to travel to the Schengen area without visas starting from 19 December 2009.

For the time being, visa requirements remains in place for citizens from Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The European Commission and the Parliament have given a favourable opinion and if EU member states decide to give their green light, citizens of these countries could travel without visas to the Schengen area before Christmas.

Kosovo is not covered by the Commission's visa liberalisation initiative. The former Serbian province is a 'sui generis' case as it is not recognised by five EU countries (Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia).

Today, the Schengen border-free area consists of 25 member states: 22 EU countries (all except Bulgaria, Romania, Ireland, the UK and Cyprus) as well as three associated countries: Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. Denmark has signed the Schengen agreement, but maintains its freedom not to apply certain measures. 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 borders with those three member states.

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