Saturday

18th Jan 2020

Opinion

France to break EU promise to the Balkans

  • The right to travel freely in Europe is essential to allowing the peoples of the Western Balkans to feel as full members of the entire European family (Photo: johnnyalive)

On 14 September the European Commission reported that Albania and Bosnia had done all that the European Union had asked them to do to qualify for visa-free access to the Schengen area. This was the official acknowledgement of more than two years of hard work and difficult reforms.

Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbs have been benefitting from travel to the EU without any restrictions since last December. All that now separates Albanians and Bosnians from enjoying the same freedom by the end of 2010 are votes in the European Parliament and the Council, representing member states, lifting the visa barrier.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

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

... or join as a group

The EU's visa liberalisation process is a great example of EU soft power based on clear conditionality. In early 2008, five Balkan countries received detailed "visa roadmaps" that listed close to 50 benchmarks. The requirements ranged from secure biometric passports to well-protected borders, from new mechanisms to fight organised crime and illegal migration to improved cooperation with European law enforcement agencies. The process has turned the Balkan countries into partners helping protect the EU from external threats.

Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia met the EU's conditions in 2009. Although Bosnia and Albania lagged behind, they have now caught up with their neighbours. As the Commission put it: "Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina have taken all the necessary measures to fulfil all open benchmarks [...] and consequently can be transferred from the negative (Annex I) to the positive (Annex II) list of Regulation 539/2001."

It came as a shock, therefore, that France objected to keeping the EU's promise last Thursday, challenging the Commission's findings in a number of areas.

Objections easy to dismiss

The substance of France's objections is easy to dismiss. The Commission assessments are based on hundreds of specific criteria. In order to verify progress, the Commission has conducted 30 field missions to Albania and Bosnia each over the past two years. Largely to reassure national governments, each mission has included experts nominated by EU countries. The European Stability Initiative's own research and analyses have showed that the Commission's assessments have been both fair and sound.

The measures taken by Bosnia and Albania are already producing results. In June 2010, Interpol's Secretary General commended Bosnia for its leadership "in preventing dangerous criminals from using fraudulent travel documents and stolen motor vehicles to cross borders." In its latest "Trafficking in Persons Report", published this summer, the US State Department moved Bosnia into the top category of countries effectively fighting human trafficking. (Croatia is the only other Western Balkan country included in this category; seven EU member states are ranked lower.)

In Albania, the number of first-instance convictions for organised crime increased from 317 in 2008 to 446 in 2009. The public procurement agency also this year was awarded second place by the UN for improving transparency, accountability and responsiveness in the public service.

For France to challenge the Commission findings and to argue that Bosnia and Albania should not this year receive what Serbia was given in 2009 is to damage the EU's already diminishing credibility in the whole region – and to suggest that in the end EU conditionality is about politics, not reforms.

Crusade against the Commission?

A number of possible reasons for the French shift of position are circulating. Some believe that the move is part of a French crusade against the Commission, which recently criticised the Sarkozy government over the closure of Roma camps and the expulsion of their inhabitants to Romania. Others argue that it is based on populist anti-Muslim bias.

The populations of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are predominantly Christian. Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina (and Kosovo, which has not been even given a visa liberalisation process) are majority Muslim. The fact that such a perception would pose a major threat to European interests in the Balkans is lost on no one, not least the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. In a commentary published a few months ago, Kouchner wrote:

"The technical conditions must of course be met, but we must not allow the idea to gain currency that the Balkan Muslims are discriminated against and prevented from benefiting from measures which the Serbs or the Montenegrins have, quite rightly, benefited from since the end of last year. The right to travel freely in Europe is essential to allowing the peoples of the Western Balkans to feel as full members of the entire European family."

Where does all this leave the EU? The best outcome would be for the vast majority of EU member states – and the European Parliament, which is strongly in favour of abolishing the visa requirements as soon as possible – to convince France that it is mistaken. The French foreign ministry could chip in by warning the Elysée Palace of the enormous damage to France's image in the region if France remains opposed.

A second possibility is that the Belgian EU Presidency puts the issue to a vote regardless of French objections. As long as France stands alone, it could be easily outvoted. Even if one or two member states join the French camp, the necessary "qualified majority" (roughly a three-quarter majority) would be reached. This would show to the region that most member states refuse to compromise on the EU's policy of "strict but fair" conditionality.

The third and worst outcome would be for France to prevail and be joined by other EU members. In this case, the European Union would break its clear promise to the region. This would seriously undermine the EU's leverage at a critical moment. In Bosnia, it would discredit all those who argued in 2009 that all of the country's ethnic groups should work together to reach difficult compromises in the interest of EU integration and visa-free travel. In Albania, it would undermine European efforts bring a dose of stability to a highly polarised domestic environment. Above all, the refusal to abolish the visa requirement would send a signal of double standards.

Soft power and credibility

The EU's soft power is often said to be a most powerful foreign policy tool. Yet this power depends on the credibility and consistency of the EU's policies. If the EU were to backtrack on its promise of visa-free travel, the credibility of its future efforts in Bosnia and Albania, but also in Kosovo, would suffer tremendously.

France has done a lot for the Balkan region since the Zagreb Summit in 2000. The summit itself, the first to offer the Balkans a European perspective, was initiated by then French President Jacques Chirac. The foreign minister and French intellectuals have warned against anti-Muslim prejudice in EU policies towards the Balkans. This week, EU ambassadors will discuss the visa issue in Brussels. Their meeting is an opportunity for France to scrap its surprisingly irresponsible policy towards Bosnia and Albania.

The writers founded and run the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank that has closely followed the visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans.

Disclaimer

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

Why EU subsidy schemes don't work - the evidence

Counter to popular beliefs among policymakers, the positive effects of support schemes are found to be very limited. In order to revitalise Europe, the newly appointed EU Commission needs to reconsider government's role in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Can the Green Deal – and Europe – succeed?

We have invested €200bn in research and innovation since 1984, but have we achieved any leadership in quantum, semiconductors, storage, artificial intelligence? The simple answer is no.

MEPs: Don't waste your chance to change Vietnam

A growing number of MEPs have become aware of the brutality and unreliability of the Vietnamese regime, and realise that this vote is one of the rare occasions in which they have binding power in EU foreign policy.

Europe's migration system is broken: Renew has a plan

The failure of successful integration of migrants and refugees granted stay in Europe puts the entire asylum and migration policy at risk. Member states have to step up their integration policies.

Turkey's tightrope could finally snap in Libya

Turkey has embarked on a neo-Ottoman strategy, aiming to re-establish itself as a regional power. This involves simultaneously reaping the benefits of Nato membership whilst pursuing an overtly-expansionist foreign policy, even including a loose partnership with Russia in Syria.

Why EU minimum wage is actually bad idea for workers

As president of one of the largest trade union confederations in the EU, I see the need for good working conditions and decent pay in all member states - but an EU-wide minimum wage could be used to lower wages.

News in Brief

  1. 'No objection in principle' on Huawei cooperation, EU says
  2. French aircraft carrier goes to Middle East amid tensions
  3. EU suggests temporary ban on facial recognition
  4. EU industry cries foul on Chinese restrictions
  5. 'Devil in detail', EU warns on US-China trade deal
  6. Trump threatened EU-tariffs over Iran, Germany confirms
  7. EU trade commissioner warns UK of 'brinkmanship'
  8. Germany strikes coal phase-out deal

Column

Why nations are egomaniacs

A nation, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, is not capable of altruism. Even less so, if such a group has formed on the basis of strong emotions and casts itself as the "saviour of the nation".

Maltese murder - the next rule-of-law crisis in EU?

While Poland's government is escalating its rule of law crisis by introducing even more drastic measures against the country's judges, another problem is looming over the EU's commitment to upholding the rule of law: Malta.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  5. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  2. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  3. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us