Friday

15th Nov 2019

Opinion

Visa-free travel for the Western Balkans – a win-win situation

  • According to the European Commission, Macedonia has met all the necessary conditions for its citizens to be allowed visa-free travel (Photo: Martin Schroeder)

At times the Balkans can deliver a positive surprise.

Over the past year, five countries in the region have carried out fundamental reforms that will help to protect them and the EU against organised crime and irregular migration. They have introduced biometric passports, modernised their border crossing points, built reception centres for asylum seekers, established closer cooperation with Europol, Eurojust, Frontex and Interpol, and strengthened the fight against corruption and organised crime.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 year's of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join as a group

Most of these countries have worked with remarkable speed and determination. They have had a reason to meet close to 50 conditions set out in "visa roadmaps" issued by the European Commission last year. The ultimate reward, attractive to both citizens and leaders of these countries, is visa-free travel to the Schengen area.

The commission assessments last month noted that Macedonia has met the roadmap criteria; Montenegro and Serbia have met the majority of the conditions; and Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, meanwhile, will need to do more. Now the ball is in the EU's court. People across the region ask: will the EU really reward the progress made and lift the visa requirements?

The visa liberalisation process had been long in coming. Since the visa obligation was imposed on all the countries of the region except Croatia in the early 1990s, their governments had asked what they would have to do to get rid of it again.

In 2003, at the Balkan summit in Thessaloniki, they were promised discussions about the necessary reforms, but there was no serious follow-up for many years.

Thus, even though all Western Balkan countries were potential or official candidates for EU membership, their citizens have continued to queue for visas - a time-consuming, stressful and often expensive affair with no certain positive outcome. In their minds, the visa requirement has cast serious doubts on the credibility of the European perspective of their countries.

The current process was finally launched when the European Commission and a critical number of EU member states realised that the situation was to the EU's disadvantage not only for political reasons, but also from a law enforcement perspective.

Surrounded by EU member states

The union needs improved co-operation with competent law enforcement bodies in the western Balkans – surrounded on all sides by EU member states - in order to fight irregular migration and organised crime more effectively.

In 2006 the EU first offered the Western Balkan countries visa facilitation (easier visa application procedures) in return for readmission agreements (which allow EU countries to return migrants found to have arrived illegally to their countries of origin or transit). This was followed in January 2008 by the current visa dialogues centred on the roadmaps.

Between January and March of this year, 15 missions comprising law enforcement experts sent by the member states, as well as commission officials, went to the western Balkans.

The experts scrutinised what had been done to advance document security, border control, migration management and public security. This was the most thorough analysis of the state-of-affairs in these areas ever undertaken. Based on the results the Commission could draw up detailed assessments. To the surprise of many sceptics, the conditionality had produced results across the whole region.

Next steps

What are the next steps? Now the commission must make a proposal naming the countries which should no longer be subject to a visa requirement. Afterwards the European Parliament will be consulted, and in the autumn the Council will vote on the proposal by qualified majority.

Macedonia should be granted visa-free travel since it has met the roadmap requirements.

The commission should also propose placing Serbia and Montenegro on the "Schengen White List" as they have proven their political will, meeting most requirements, and still have the time, before the Council actually votes, to show their continued determination.

Lastly, it would be advisable to symbolically move Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina onto the White List, while clearly stipulating that visa-free travel will not begin for them until the commission confirms in another assessment that the two countries have met all the roadmap conditions.

The roadmap process has been a textbook example of conditionality. However, conditionality not only requires an appropriate reward and clear, detailed conditions: the reward must also be delivered when the conditions are met.

In this way, the EU will strengthen its credibility in the region, create a fertile ground for wider reforms, and encourage cross-border co-operation between ever more competent institutions to fight common threats.

A strong signal

For the credibility of the process, it is important that it remains technical, based on merit. At the same time, the process has raised expectations across the region.

For this reason, EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on 15-16 June should send a clear signal that the visa liberalisation process is a priority not only for the region, but also for the EU, and that it will accelerate the decision-making process to make visa-free travel a reality by January 2010.

A strong signal is important for countries such as Macedonia where EU support has been waning; and for countries such as Serbia where the pro-European government is under pressure to deliver on its European promises. It would be also important that the EU foreign ministers reflected on how to help Kosovo, the only country that was left out of the visa liberalisation process, to qualify for visa-free travel as an incentive for Kosovo to carry out the same far-reaching reforms.

The EU talks a lot about conditionality in the Balkans. It is right to do so. Conditionality works best as long as it is credible, strict and fair and as long as the link between reforms and rewards is clearly spelt out and acted upon.

The visa roadmap story shows that there is still a lot of life in the notion of EU soft power in the Balkans. Taking the next logical step would benefit everyone, both in the EU and in the western Balkans. It is, for once, a true win-win situation.

Gerald Knaus and Alexandra Stiglmayer are founders of and senior analysts with the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank that has been continuously monitoring the visa liberalisation process in the Balkans

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Corruption in the Balkans: the elephant in the room

Over the years, both real and perceived levels of corruption in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have remained high. The necessary reforms in those countries, to put it mildly, are not yet effectively carried out.

Israeli labelling ruling lets consumers make choice

Beyond the Israel-specific dimension of this decision, the EU court places ethics back at the heart of European consumer choices and reminds us that our daily, mundane purchases may have considerable and unforeseen geopolitical implications, particularly as regards occupied territories.

Cleaning up both the EU and Western Balkans

There has been little substantial analysis, since the Macron veto, of why so much money and effort in the Balkans has failed to result in the political and economic transformation needed to prepare candidates for full membership.

EU 'all bark and no bite' on disinformation

The list of suspects orchestrating foreign influence campaigns is growing. The likes of China, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia are also tapping into Russia's disinfo playbook.

Column

The last convulsions of the old world order

If European countries want a strong role in this new order, they must redefine sovereignty and update it. This means that only if Europeans are prepared to pool power, they can help lay the foundations for new international institutions.

News in Brief

  1. Catalan politicians extradition hearing postponed
  2. Germany: EU banking union deal possible in December
  3. EIB: no more funding of fossil-fuel projects
  4. UK defence chief: Russia could trigger World War III
  5. Hungary's Varhelyi will face more questions
  6. Police put former Berlusconi MEP Comi under house arrest
  7. MEPs criticise Poland for criminalising sex education
  8. UK will not name new commissioner before election

'A game of roulette' - life as a journalist now in Turkey

Turkey has more journalists behind bars than any other country in the world. The authorities seem to equate journalism with terrorism: everyone has the right to express themselves, but, in their eyes, legitimate journalism is a threat to security.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  3. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture
  5. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  6. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  7. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  9. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021

Latest News

  1. Key moments for new commission This WEEK
  2. EU threatens legal action against UK over commissioner
  3. Corruption in the Balkans: the elephant in the room
  4. Green MEPs unconvinced by Romanian commissioner
  5. EU states fell short on sharing refugees, say auditors
  6. Hungary's commissioner-to-be grilled over loyalty to Orban
  7. Widow's plea as EU diplomats debate Magnitsky Act
  8. Leftist MEPs call on EU to address crisis in Chile

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  3. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  4. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  5. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  6. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  11. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  12. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  3. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  8. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  9. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  10. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  11. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us