Balkan travellers to get cheaper EU visas
People from four Balkan countries will in future benefit from cheaper and easier EU-entry visas after a new travel deal signed at the weekend, but Serbia is not in the group despite EU worries over young, alienated Serb radicals.
Macedonia signed the agreement in Brussels on Friday (13 April) while Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro signing up on the sidelines of a meeting in the Croatian capital Zagreb between internal and justice ministers of south eastern Europe on Saturday (14 April).
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Under the agreement, citizens in the four countries will pay €35 for a so-called Schengen visa instead of the €60 which was set last year.
Businessmen, students and journalists will have more simplified procedures when applying for the visas, while diplomats will need no visa to enter the Schengen zone – which consists of the 15 "old" EU member states except for Ireland and the UK but including non-EU members Iceland and Norway.
There are no visa requirements for EU citizens visiting any Western Balkan countries.
The deal also concluded "readmission agreements" forcing the countries to take back any of their citizens found to be in the EU illegally.
"We have reached an important milestone. The conclusion of the negotiations on these agreements will directly benefit citizens," said EU justice commissioner Franco Frattini.
"They are a clear and practical sign of our progressive and increasingly closer cooperation," he added in a statement.
By relaxing its visa rules, the EU says it hopes to encourage the historically tumultuous Western Balkan countries to reform and stabilise their laws and economies.
Serbia lagging behind
However, Serbia – which started visa facilitation talks at the same time as its four neighbours – has yet to finish the negotiations.
Belgrade refused to agree to the return of foreign nationals who had entered EU countries as illegal migrants from Serbia, reports Serbian news agency FoNet.
"I regret that Serbia was not part of the group that proceeded to conclude the negotiations on visa facilitation," said EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn on Monday (16 April).
"However, it is a matter of relatively technical considerations and I am rather confident that we can overcome the remaining difficulties shortly," he added.
German centre-right MEP Doris Pack - who regularly visits the Western Balkans as the chairwoman of the European Parliament delegation for relations with the countries of south-east Europe - told EUobserver that it was high time for the EU to provide visa facilitation for the Western Balkans.
"We cannot ask them to behave in a European way if we don't give them a chance to come to the European Union and to speak with Europeans – they are totally outside," she said on Friday (13 April) at a conference in Sarajevo on the future of the Western Balkans organised by the German Konrad Adenauer foundation.
Serb radicalism threat
EU governments have in the past expressed concern at increasing radical nationalism among young Serbs which they fear could lead to serious tensions in the country.
Ksenija Milivojevic, head of the Serbian European Movement, a pro-integration group, argued in Sarajevo that an open visa regime in the Balkans would "offer real support to the European idea."
"You cannot expect that a 25-year-old who has never crossed the border to understand Europe and the benefits of joining the European Union and therefore to fight for such a move," she said.
"It takes quite a lot of effort to get over the Schengen wall," Ms Milivojevic added.