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.