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.