2nd Oct 2023

Three Balkan countries to get visa-free travel by Christmas

  • Serbian children will be able to travel to Europe visa-free, as their parents could 20 years ago (Photo: European Commission)

Serbs, Macedonians and Montenegrins will be able to travel visa-free to Europe from 19 December, EU interior ministers decided on Monday.

EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn said the move was a "big step in terms of EU integration and Europeanisation of the civil societies in these countries" and added that the other Balkan countries could join the visa-free regime once they met the conditions.

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"This is a very important day for Serbian citizens. I have to remind ourselves that 20 years ago we didn't need visas and today we are turning back to that," Serbian President Boris Tadic said at a joint press conference with Mr Rehn.

Earlier on, justice and civil liberties commissioner Jacques Barrot emphasized that the timing of the move would allow Serbs, Macedonians and Montenegrins to freely visit their relatives for Christmas in all EU cities part of the borderless Schengen area.

London, however, will be still off-limits for the new visa-free travellers, as Britain is not part of the common border-free area.

Under the agreement, citizens from Serbia, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Montenegro will be able to travel visa-free for a period of 90 days within six months in all the 25 countries of the Schengen area. They must have a biometric passport, however.

Back in Belgrade, the move is of particular importance to students interested in EU affairs, said Sonja Licht, head of the Belgrade fund for Political Excellence, a non-profit organisation funded by the Council of Europe.

"So far, students faced big problems when they wanted to travel abroad. For one, they could not afford it, and with queuing for days in order to get a visa, they would feel as second-rate citizens. It was a wrong introduction to EU values, to openness and democracy," Ms Licht told this website.

She also said a surge in low-cost airlines was expected, with plane tickets to European destinations currently costing two to three times more from Belgrade than from Budapest.

End of name dispute?

Macedonia is the A-student among the three, according to the commission's assessment earlier this year on how it manages document security, illegal immigration, public order, external relations and human rights.

Skopje has also met all the criteria for opening EU accession negotiations. But these have been put on hold by a name dispute with Athens, which is against the term 'Macedonia' being used by its neighbour, as it also refers to a Greek region.

Talks between the Macedonian and the Greek premier on Friday saw no announcements of a breakthrough, but Mr Rehn expressed optimism that "we are heading towards opening accession negotiations" at a meeting of EU leaders next week.

Meanwhile, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina were deemed to have not yet made enough progress to trigger the lifting of visas. EU leaders and commissioners encouraged both countries to step up their efforts so that "one day all citizens from the Balkans can travel without visas", Swedish minister of interior Tobias Billstrom said.

Kosovo is still not on the list, as not all EU members have recognised its independence. But Mr Barrot stressed that efforts were being made to facilitate visa procedures.

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