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The European Union and Visa Facilitation

Albanian friends tell me of the difficulties involved in obtaining a visa to travel almost anywhere in the European Union. The process is expensive and complicated and often it seems that the presumption is against granting visas. It is easy to understand why the process creates much frustration and resentment.

More than three years ago the EU's External Relations Council at its meeting in Thessaloniki produced The Thessaloniki Agenda for the Western Balkans: moving towards European Integration.

This document recognised the importance of visa liberalisation as an issue in the Balkans, but stated that progress was dependent on reform in 'areas such as the strengthening of the rule of law, combating organised crime, corruption and illegal migration, and strengthening their administrative capacity in border control and security of documents.' The EU Council meeting at Thessaloniki endorsed this paper referring to the 'privileged relations between the EU and the Western Balkans.'

In the meantime, little changed. Reforms carried out in the region were not matched by any response from the EU. Admittedly the reform process was slow and often inadequate. The states of the Western Balkans remained - and remain - weak, with high levels of corruption and fraud. Yet as the International Crisis Group pointed out in a report published last year, the EU, was negotiating more liberal visa regimes with coutries like Russia, Ukraine and China, even while it refused to make any changes in regard to the Western Balkans.

The ICG pointed out that if reform - however halting - was not being recognised and rewarded, especially on such a key issue, the incentive to push ahead with more extensive and more thorough reform would be undermined. On the other hand, '...selective liberalisation for certain identified groups, and visa facilitation for all applicants – involving a simplified, speedier, less painful process – would go a long way toward showing governments and citizens alike that reforms do pay off.'

Now, it seems that the question of visas is finally back on the EU's agenda. On Monday, the External Relations Council meeting 'adopted' a number of 'conclusions' regarding 'Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements' for the Western Balkans. The conclusions adopted were as follows:

1. Recalling the European Council conclusions of June 2006, the Council adopted the negotiation mandates for visa facilitation and readmission agreements with Bosnia and Herzegovina, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. The Council also adopted the negotiation mandate for a visa facilitation agreement with Albania, recalling that the EU already has a readmission agreement with Albania.

2. The Council urged the Commission to start the negotiations in the course of November, and expressed its confidence that the negotiations could be concluded as soon as possible. The conclusion of these agreements will be important in fostering people to people contacts between the Western Balkan countries and the EU.

3. Recalling the Thessaloniki agenda, the Council reiterated that the EU is aware of the particular importance the peoples in the Western Balkans attach to the visa issue. It underlined that visa facilitation and readmission agreements will be an important and necessary step forward. The Council also noted that further progress will depend on implementing relevant reforms and encouraged the countries of the Western Balkans to step up their efforts in implementing reforms in the area of rule of law, combating organised crime, corruption and illegal migration, and strengthening their administrative capacity in border control and security of documents.

News reports suggest that the aim will be to make the visa application process cheaper and less complex, with multi-entry visas will be available for certain categories of applicant. The hope is that this will make it easier for students, academics, business people, journalists and other key groups to travel to the EU.

The timing of this announcement is interesting, coming as it does only a few days after the latest enlargement report was generally quite negative regarding the propsects for the region. Is this the EU 's way of trying to soften the blow? Or to ward of any growing disillusionment with the EU process? While reforms have been slow and painful, liberalisation of the visa regime does at least indicate that there is some reward or benefit resulting from what has so far been achieved. Further liberalisation will then depend on further reform.

There are good reasons why it is not possible to move to an era of visa free travel - something that actually existed for many of the region's citizens during the communist era. States in this region - and especially Albania - are weak, corruption is widespread, and document fraud is common. There are, of course, bad reasons as well. Not least, the struggle that many EU governments have to convince their citizens of the benefits of free movement and migration. Their failure to do so is clear in the rise of anti-immigrant political movements across the EU.

When my Albanian friends tell me of their frustration I can sympathise with them to some extent. Growing up in Northern Ireland, I experienced the same frustrations and resentments when I travelled to Great Britain. Though both were part of the United Kingdom, visitors from Northern Ireland were always treated differently. At airports in particular this difference was noticeable. Certain gates were reserved for travellers to and from Northern Ireland, often isolated from other gates. We were monitored by security cameras. We were stopped at random and questioned by police officers.

Thus, despite being a British citizen I was being treated as suspect by the British state. Yet, frustrating as it was I had to remind myself that there was a reason for the security precautions being taken, even if they were being implemented in a heavy handed or insensitive way. For there were Irish terrorists trying to enter Great Britain whose intention was criminal and violent. And even though they were my enemy as much as they were the enemy of the police officers watching me, and even though they represented a tiny minority of those travelling, the police were not always in a position to know that.

Likewise, there are people from the Western Balkans who migrate with criminal intent. There are criminal gangs; there are people traffickers; there are drug smugglers. They are a tiny minority of those who wish to travel, but as a British citizen and an EU citizen I want to know that European governments are trying to stop them establishing their criminal activities within Europe. There are also people from the Western Balkans who attempt to obtain visas using forged or fraudulent documents. I accept that for many people in this region, this is often driven by desperation, but it is still a crime - a serious crime. In these cases, I am inclined to a policy of zero-tolerance.

The EU has been tardy and less than generous in following through on its commitments, but the truth is that the real responsibility lies with the states of the Western Balkans. Until there is thorough and credible reform in 'areas such as the strengthening of the rule of law, combating organised crime, corruption and illegal migration, and strengthening their administrative capacity in border control and security of documents,' there will have to be a visa regime.

Given current rates of progress it will be some time before this is achieved, but governments in the region know what is required. Bulgaria and Romania faced with the same requirement were able to get there. In the meantime visa liberalisation along the lines suggested by the ICG, which the EU now seems likely to put into effect, seem to me to be the best approach.


Anonymous said…

I can argue with you that by keeping the things as they are, EU allows only albanian criminals and a small selection of normal citizens to enter the EU.

First a large group of criminals just do not pass the borders legally and by removing visa requirements, a part of this group might try to enter EU legally and thus there are greater chances that they're caught.

Second, some albanian criminals have obtained asylum in EU; if things are liberalized probably they'd have to return back and go to prison.
Llukan said…
Eh, God (the EU) gives with one hand and takes with the other....

I guess it is a good thing that they're doing this but the whole bitching and begging is just aggravating!

ローラ said…
Your argument is ridiculous.
1.There are criminals in Western Europe and they have no problem entering Eastern Europe. You make it sound as if criminal activity is an exclusively Balkan problem.

2.Forging documents is a direct consequence of travel restrictions.

Anyway, my resentment toward the EU aside, European opinion of the Balkans is racist at best(particularly of Albania). I hope this Albanian obsession with entering the EU comes to an end.
ourmanintirana said…
Anonymous, I'm sorry I didn't make myself clear. I'm not in favour of leaving things as they are; I'm in favour of the kind of changes being suggested by the ICG and now being implemented to some degree by the EU, with a view to further liberalisation as states in the region get to grips with the necessary reforms.

You are right that criminals bypass the visa system anyway, and you are right lolers that the visa requirements encourage document fraud among those who don't meet the criteria.

But you are wrong in thinking that it would be easier to catch criminals if it was easier for those criminals to travel. It would simply give them a bigger sea to swim in in order to hide from the authorities and reduce the risks they face when trying to move around.

Regarding asylum, it is now extremely rare for Albanians to be granted asylum in the EU. The British Government's advice on asylum seekers states that in almost every instance there will be no grounds for granting asylum.

Lolers, I know people feel strongly about this issue but that doesn't excuse misreadings and inferences. I 'make it sound as if criminal activity is exclusively a Balkan problem'?

This is a post about the Balkans - it is about EU visa practice in the Balkans - one aspect of that practice concerns controlling crime. So what would you like me to do? Not mention crime in the Balkans?

If it was a post about Chinese people smuggling would you claim that I make it sound like criminal activity is exclusively a Chinese problem?

Read it again (if you can do so without your blood pressure going through the roof.)

Notice a few key phrases:

'They are a tiny minority of those who wish to travel...'

'There were Irish terrorists trying to enter GB...'

Regarding your point concerning movement of criminals from West to East, I have no idea why this is supposed to be an argument in favour of easing visa regimes from East to West. Feel free to explain.

Regarding racist attitudes towards Balkan countries from EU countries, yes you are right about that. Though I think it is better described as xenophobia than racism. It's similar to American attitudes to Mexicans and Hispanics who enter the US. And similar to the attitudes held by many of the people of this region against their neighbours.
ローラ said…
First of all, I apologize for the tone of the previous comment. My blood pressure was fine and I was not angry about what you had written; it’s just the damn EU! Anyway, I did not explain myself clearly so here’s an attempt at clarifying my point.

You used your experience as a British citizen from Northern Ireland as an analogy for the people of the Western Balkans in Europe. The reason that you understood being viewed as a suspect was because you knew that there were Irish terrorists traveling to GB intent on committing violence.

The problem with your analogy lied in the fact that your tolerance extended only insofar as these terrorists were exclusive to Northern Ireland. If there were well-documented cases of Danish or French terrorists with violent goals towards the UK, you would have been less understanding about the scrutiny, if this treatment was only extended to people from Northern Ireland, while the Danish and the French moved about as they pleased.

That is what is happening to the people of the Western Balkans. Criminal activity is not exclusively a Western Balkan problem, but we do not see Italians or Germans being confined to these giant glass cases in airports. The special treatment someone holding an Albanian passport endures is inexcusable and so are the travel restrictions, which extend to people with economic means and absolutely no criminal record.

I disagree with you about choosing “xenophobia” over “racism”. The reigning attitude toward people from the Balkans is racist, as is the attitude here toward Mexicans. Western European culture and ethnic make-up are viewed as superior to the people of the Balkans. It is not simply a matter of being afraid or hating “the foreigners”.
Erald said…
I am one those "minority people" that wants a visa purely for travel purposes, in order to better understand the Western European culture and civilasition, with which by the way I and a majority of Albanians share the same values. I have travelled a couple of times in Western European countries, and the pain and hussle to obtain a visa are just ridiculous. Even to the extent that you are required the same papers, by the same embassy that granted you the visa two months ago. Not to mention costs of having to skip days from your job, and attend lines, not to mention the fees you pay for the visas, and the story goes on....
Anyway, the point is I am not trying to shoot the messenger here, but just to tell you and the other European skeptics out there that Albanian people wishing to travel to Europe are not any longer a minority, but they instead choose Turkey, Tunisia or other countries for their holidays purely to escape the painful visa process. Im of the opinion that liberating this regime will only make it easier for both parties to share values and integrate. It is this closed regime that feeds the pockets of criminals that do offer all kinds of fake visas and documents. And criminals always travel, no matter what. If the majority of Albanian would be given a chance to travel I am sure that would contribute more to destroying the biases and prejudices toward this part of the Balkans.
Anonymous said…
There are no reasons whatsoever to not grant visas to people. The criminals are not going to be stopped by a lack of visas. In fact anyone who really wants to go abroad, especially those who intend to stay, will not be stopped by a lack of visas. The lack of visas has the contrary effect on those people. Once in Europe and not liking what they see, they cannot go back to Albania of the hardships they have endured to reach there. The only group of people that is stopped are those that just feel they want to spend a few days in Europe, the group that should be most welcome by Europe. The only group who really profits from the lack of visas are the corrupt officials of the western embassies in Tirana.

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