Sunday

26th May 2019

Brussels warns that visa freedom means 'responsibility'

With visa-free travel just around the corner for the citizens of Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brussels has urged the countries' authorities to explain the limits of the access, hoping to prevent a surge of people seeking a better life in the European Union.

Provided the governments in Albania and Bosnia meet certain conditions, including improving the fight against organised crime, the parliament and member states are expected to give the green light to a commission proposal, unveiled Thursday (27 May), to lift the visa requirement for travel to the EU's borderless zone, known as the Schengen area.

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But the political gift - seen as highly important for attaching the region's young people to the EU and keeping them interested in the idea of their country's eventual accession to Union - comes with a health warning.

"This freedom would come with responsibility. So I encourage national authorities in Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina to continue informing their citizens about the rights and obligations stemming from short-term visa-free travel,'' said EU home affairs commission Cecilia Malmstrom.

The caveat came after it emerged earlier this year that following visa liberalisation in Macedonia in December, hundreds of citizens from its poorest regions travelled to Belgium in the belief that the Belgian state would grant them asylum. The Macedonian government accused tour operators of spreading the misinformation, which also resulted in Macedonians heading to Sweden and Germany among other countries.

The surge to Belgium was sudden enough to prompt an official visit to Macedonia by Prime Minister Yves Leterme in March to discuss the issue. A mission from Stockholm also went to Macedonia.

This time the commission has worked to make sure that the public knows in advance that the change will only mean no visa will be required for biometric passport holders for visits of up to 90 days.

"We have all had from the beginning lots of discussions with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania and I know that they have since quite some time already had information campaigns on TV ... to inform people what it means - what are the rights and what are the limits of course."

"But we will continue the monitoring," said the commissioner referring to three countries granted the visa-free status last year - Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro - and to Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

She also noted that EU money is available to help fund the information campaign if needed - although it has not yet been requested.

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