Sunday

21st Jul 2019

Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro offered EU visa-free travel

The citizens of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro should be allowed to travel visa-free to the EU's borderless Schengen area next year, the European Commission proposed on Wednesday (15 July).

"It is a historic step in our relations with the western Balkan countries," EU justice commissioner Jacques Barrot told journalists in Brussels while presenting the proposal together with enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn.

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"It really is a great day for the peoples of the western Balkans [and] for Europe," Mr Rehn said.

"Visa-free travel means no more queuing at embassies … [and] no more collecting of supporting documents. The citizens of these countries will be able to visit family and friends in EU… without having to undergo heavy visa procedures," he added.

The lengthy and difficult process of obtaining a visa to enter the EU was imposed on the western Balkan countries – Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania – in the aftermath of the 1990s Yugoslav war, with the bloc promising as far back as 2003 to start talks with the countries' governments to lift this obligation.

The visa liberalisation process eventually started last year with all the countries with the exception of Croatia, which already benefits from visa-free travel, and Kosovo, which was excluded from the process due to "security concerns," Mr Rehn said.

"This doesn't mean Kosovo is forgotten," he added, stressing that it was a "purely technical decision." In the autumn the commission is to publish a feasibility study on Kosovo where "certainly the visa issue will also be addressed."

The newly constituted European Parliament is now to be consulted on the commission's proposal and then EU member states are expected to give a final green light to it "probably at the end of October."

Under this scenario, and provided that Serbia and Montenegro meet "a few open benchmarks" by then, citizens from the three countries could travel to the EU's borderless Schengen area – which currently includes all EU countries minus Ireland, the UK, Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus, but plus Norway, Iceland and Switzerland - as of January 2010.

Creating ‘two classes' of Balkan citizens

The decision to leave out Albania and Bosnia from the visa liberalisation proposal has provoked criticism in some circles, with Brussels accused of isolating the Balkans' Muslim population.

In an open letter, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, the international community's former high representative to Bosnia, conservative German MEP Doris Pack, Green leaders Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Rebecca Harms, as well as a number of academics and analysts, said that by not granting visa-free travel to all Balkan citizens, the EU was creating "two classes of citizens in South Eastern Europe, based on ethnicity."

"The European Commission ignores that Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia are almost at the same level with regard to the introduction of biometric passports and a variety of legislative acts agreed on the visa liberalisation roadmap," states the letter.

The authors argue that Bosnia's Muslim population – the Bosniaks – will be isolated, as the country's two other main ethnic groups, Croats and Serbs, the majority of whom have Croat and Serb passports, will be able to travel freely as of next year.

"De facto, ethnic criteria will decide on whether a citizen is able to travel freely to the EU," they say.

Visa liberalisation is not a ‘political decision'

The commission rejected the accusations, insisting that there were clear criteria to be fulfilled in order for a country to get into the Schengen "white list," and that neither Albania nor Bosnia had met these criteria yet.

"Granting visa-free travel… is not a matter of a simple political decision," Mr Rehn said.

Albania and Bosnia "have the same conditions as the others" and once they meet these conditions, they too can travel visa-free, he added.

The conditions include introducing biometric passports and improving passport security; strengthening border controls; reinforcing the institutional framework to better fight organised crime and corruption; as well as improving external relations and fundamental rights.

"I believe both countries will soon catch up with their neighbours. If all the conditions are fulfilled, the Commission could envisage making a new proposal, which would include them, by mid-2010," the enlargement commissioner said.

He also pointed out that in the particular case of Bosnia, "too much time and energy has been consumed in recent years in nationalistic rhetoric instead of taking serious political decisions for the benefit of the citizens."

It is all "in the hands of their own leaders now," he stressed.

Some Balkan countries may get EU visa-free travel within months

The citizens of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro could be allowed visa-free travel to the EU as early as the end of this year, foreign ministers said Monday. Meanwhile, Croatia and Slovenia once again failed to make any progress on their border dispute.

EU split on Western Balkans accession

Europe's credibility is at risk in the Western Balkans, half its member states have warned - but EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said Albania and North Macedonia unlikely to start accession talks soon.

Tensions mount over Kosovo-Serbia deal

Serbia will never recognise Kosovo, Serbia's foreign minister has said, as the Western Balkans heads into a new period of turbulence.

Opinion

EU report recognises Albania's achievements

Albania currently faces a serious crisis, which it would be foolish for all actors in the international community to ignore. Yet we must ask that our partners in Europe read Federica Mogherini's report carefully and recognise accomplishments.

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