Brussels, 29 November 2005: EU visa policy towards the Western Balkans contributes to the ghettoisation of the region and undermines Balkan efforts for reform and stability.
EU Visas and the Western Balkans,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the current visa regime with regard to Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro including Kosovo. It highlights the policy’s sclerotic deficiencies that jeopardise the objective of enhanced European integration and damage the countries’ European outlook and hopes of eventual EU candidate status.
“This is not about emigration, permanent residence or threats to EU jobs. This is about liberalising the limited-term visa regime, primarily for students, business people and tourists, and making the application process simpler, faster and less painful for all”, says Nicholas Whyte, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “The current system is breeding resentment by making the majority pay a high price for a criminal minority”.
At the June 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, the EU assured the peoples of the Western Balkans region that Brussels would not regard the map of the Union as complete until those countries had joined. The EU committed itself to a more liberal visa regime, with the warning however that any progress toward this end depended upon the implementation of major reforms in areas of law, crime, administration and border controls.
But the very real efforts of Western Balkan governments to reform are not paying off as expected, and their populations seem to be increasingly frustrated by the fact they have seen few tangible rewards for their labours. The EU has not moved on implementing the commitments it took in Thessaloniki.
The EU and its member states should refocus on how to help this region make its way towards further integration. In particular the European Commission should put negotiating mandates to the Council of Ministers on visa liberalisation and facilitation for the countries of the region and should set out a road map for each country so that they have a clear picture of the steps they need to take to get an improved visa regime from the EU. The EU Member states should begin negotiations with the relevant countries on a selective Schengen visa liberalisation regime for certain segments of the population and on facilitating visa applications for all their citizens.
The EU must not forget that the citizens of the former Yugoslavia enjoyed visa-free contact with Western Europe before the wars of the 1990s. It must also remember that the new post-Milosevic generation of young Balkan Europeans has sadly never set foot inside the Union.
“The new Balkans generation, responsible for taking the region out of narrow-minded nationalism and conflict towards a European future, is not being given the necessary tools”, says Neil Campbell, a Research Analyst at Crisis Group. “A visa policy that inevitably fosters resentment towards the EU is certainly no way to make progress – neither in the region, nor in Europe overall”.