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