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22nd Feb 2020

Brussels could recommend visa-free travel for Balkan countries

  • Citizens from western Balkan countries are currently subject to thorough checks before entering the EU (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission could in the first half of this year recommend lifting visa requirements for the Balkan countries that have carried out sufficient reforms, EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn said on Tuesday (31 March).

"Maybe this year we will be able to get concrete results as regards visa-free travel," Mr Rehn said at a conference organised by the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC) think-tank.

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"We analyse the reports for the moment and we will consider recommendations still before the end of the Czech EU presidency [in July] so that the Council [the EU member states] could in the course of this year…take a decision on visa-free travel for the most advanced countries of the western Balkans in terms of meeting the requirements and conditions," he added.

Visa requirements were imposed on the western Balkan countries in the aftermath of the 1990s Yugoslav war, with the EU promising as far back as 2003 to start talks with the countries' governments to lift these obligations.

Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro are currently the most advanced in that respect, according to Brussels' assessment reports from November last year, while Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina are the least prepared.

If the commission recommends scrapping the heavy visa obligations, a qualified majority of EU member states would have to back the measure for it to go through.

Visa liberalisation is "clearly our priority this year," Mr Rehn told MEPs from the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee later on Tuesday.

The commissioner also urged the EU not to use the global financial crisis as an excuse to slow down the enlargement process.

"Let's not make enlargement the scapegoat of economic recession, since it has not deserved this and it is not responsible for our social ills in the EU," Mr Rehn said.

"Our economic troubles are not the fault of a Serbian worker or a Croatian civil servant, rather they stem from the systemic errors of financial capitalism and originate from Wall Street, not from main street in Zagreb or Belgrade."

Slovenia and Croatia should avoid blame games

Commenting on the border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia, which has seen Ljubljana block Zagreb's EU talks since December, Mr Rehn urged the two countries to adopt a "constructive" approach in order to solve the issue, rather than blame each other for the stalemate.

"I am quite worried about the media and the media climate in both countries …Let's stop nationalistic rhetoric," he said.

The commissioner has proposed setting up a mediation group chaired by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari to help solve the border dispute.

Mr Rehn declined to confirm whether he had received a reply to his proposal from the two countries, or whether Mr Ahtisaari would participate in a meeting between himself and Croatia's and Slovenia's foreign ministers on Wednesday in a bid to break the deadlock.

He reaffirmed however that Zagreb was "still on track" to conclude EU accession talks by the end of this year, despite the current stalemate.

Croatia opened EU accession talks in 2005 and wants to become the bloc's 28th member state in 2011.

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Despite its many internal problems, Bosnia and Herzegovina could join the EU by 2015, the country's foreign minister has said, adding that he expects Nato accession to materialise even earlier.

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