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18th Jan 2020

Macedonia a step closer to visa-free travel to EU

The European Commission on Monday (25 May) presented EU member states with its assessment of how well western Balkan countries have been fulfilling the conditions for visa-free travel to the bloc, with Macedonia given the best mark, and Albania and Bosnia the worst.

According to the commission's report, posted on the website of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) – a non-profit policy institute known for its analyses and research work on South East Europe – only EU candidate Macedonia has met all necessary conditions for its citizens to be allowed to travel visa-free into the European Union.

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The commission's criteria include "document security, illegal migration including readmission, public order and security, external relations and fundamental rights," with Skopje judged to meet the benchmarks on all the points.

Montenegro and Serbia are said to "meet most benchmarks," but both have fully complied only with the requirements regarding document security, while for the remaining criteria they have met "a large majority of benchmarks."

Albania and Bosnia received the lowest grade on all points and "do not yet fully meet [any of] the benchmarks", while Kosovo was not included in the commission's assessment at all – a gap criticised by ESI.

"The most problematic aspect of the current assessments is that they [the commission] leave out Kosovo, the western Balkan state where the European Union has assumed most direct responsibility," ESI said.

"It is not clear why the EU would wish to forego such a powerful instrument to improve policing, border controls and the rule of law in Kosovo."

All in member states' hands

The updated commission report follows a previous one presented to member states in November and a subsequent series of fact-finding missions that were carried together with national experts from EU countries between January and March this year.

Member states are now to present the commission with their views on the report, after which the EU executive will present its final assessment for their approval.

"I am very satisfied by the efforts made by the countries of the region in implementing the [visa liberalisation] road maps and by their excellent co-operation in the organisation of the expert missions and I am looking forward to the comments and views of the member states," EU justice commissioner Jacques Barrot said in a statement.

"Bearing them in mind, I will present as soon as possible a proposal to the College to abolish the visa obligation for the citizens of the country/countries which will have met the benchmarks of the road maps. I am confident that visa liberalisation with all the countries of the western Balkans is a tangible prospect," he added.

For his part, EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn has repeatedly said he hoped the bloc's member states could take a decision on visa-free travel "for the most advanced countries" in the course of the year.

Under that scenario, Macedonians could travel to the EU without visas as of next year.

The lengthy and difficult process of obtaining a visa to enter the EU was imposed on the western Balkan countries 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.

But to date, Croats are the only western Balkan citizens who can travel visa-free to the EU.

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