Visa Liberalization in the Balkans, A Success for EuropeDecember 14th, 2009 Uncategorized
After almost two decades of isolation, it is great news that citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia are able to travel without a visa to the Schengen zone, starting December 19, 2009, writes Gerald Knaus, founder and chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI).
A Serbian airline promptly offered promotional flights to Schengen countries under the slogan “Europe for all of us”, told Knaus and added “This is a much needed success for friends of Europe across the region”. In the 1990s, Europe underwent a fundamental transformation: in the East democracy and market economy replaced communist dictatorships and the continent began to grow together once again.
The political reunification culminated in the abolition of border controls: the Schengen Area now includes most of Central Europe. During this period, the citizens of the Western Balkans had a very different experience. Yugoslavia fell apart. War, displacement and economic hardship became a daily routine. Sanctions busting and the smuggling of arms, drugs and people all flourished. The people of Albania fared only slightly better, their country descending into chaos in 1997. For outsiders, the Balkans became synonymous with refugees and crime. To close borders and to restrict travel through visa requirements was a natural response for the EU. The citizens of former Yugoslavia, accustomed to free travel, suddenly found themselves confined.
Today the Balkans are changing. A decade has passed since the last regional war, in Kosovo. Reforms in the security and judicial sectors are making it increasingly difficult for criminals to operate. Whereas in 1997 foreign troops had to be dispatched to Albania to restore order, in 2009 Albania is joining NATO. Soldiers from Bosnia’s unified professional 10,000-strong army, meanwhile, contribute to peace-keeping missions around the world. It is very encouraging that after some delay EU visa policy has now caught up with the positive changes in this region.
After almost two decades of isolation, it is great news that citizens of these three countries are now able to travel without a visa to the Schengen zone from 19 December last year. “Europe opens its doors,” announced a Montenegrin daily. “The Schengen Wall has fallen,” rejoiced Serbia’s public broadcaster. A Serbian airline promptly offered promotional flights to Schengen countries under the slogan “Europe for all of us”.
This is a much needed success for Europeanisers across the region itself. It is also a success for friends of the region inside the EU, and for the Swedish EU presidency in 2009. The visa requirement was counterproductive for the EU members-in-waiting. It hampered business and created a psychological barrier that made citizens skeptical about a European future. The EU is also getting a lot in return. As a condition of visa-free travel, the Balkan countries had to carry out far-reaching reforms in the areas of border control, passport security and the fight against organized crime, corruption and illegal migration. These measures make all of Europe safer.
When the EU proposed scrapping visas for Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia last July, Albania and Bosnia were still dragging their feet on the conditions. Since then, however, they have made huge progress and will soon have ticked all the boxes. The question is thus no longer whether they will qualify for visa-free travel next year, but when this year. There is everything to be gained from an early decision to preserve the momentum and ensure that Albanians and Bosnians do not feel discriminated against. This requires the Commission to organize the assessment missions – there will probably be three to each country – as soon as possible. Assuming a positive outcome of these missions, the Commission, Parliament and Council will then have to work swiftly to amend the relevant Regulation. The EU could now aim for the start of visa-free travel well before the summer vacation, May or June 2010.
In the meantime, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia have to make sure that visa-free travel for the Balkans remains a success story. They must continue to press ahead with the roadmap reforms, leaving no doubt as to their continuing commitment to meeting EU standards. They could also publicize the positive benefits of visa freedom. Is the number of Western Balkan students in the EU increasing? Is trade with the EU flourishing? Are there more cross-cultural events?
The visa liberalization process has been an excellent example of EU soft power at work. There were very clear conditions, a rigorous process with milestones and deadlines, and a reachable, juicy carrot at the end. It created some very healthy competition among the five participating countries. When Albania and Bosnia realized last summer that they were lagging behind their neighbors, they redoubled their efforts. There are lessons here that can be used for the wider Balkan enlargement process. Treating all countries alike in a single process, but rewarding them for their objective performance in a strict, but fair fashion, is the best way to foster national efforts to meet the demanding accession criteria. Transparent, merit-based competition works wonders, even in the Balkans. This is the kind of Balkan rivalry that citizens of the region – and across Europe – can benefit from. In fact, there cannot be enough of it.
The process is not yet complete even in the Balkans, however. And with its international status still unresolved, Kosovo is the most burning issue. Until very recently, there was even no prospect of visa liberalization for Kosovo. Last October, the Commission promised a “visa dialogue” with the perspective of eventual liberalization, conditional on the necessary reforms. However, unlike for the other Western Balkan countries, the EU did not announce a visa roadmap setting out all the reforms that Kosovo will have to undertake. The process was left vaguer. The Commission did not want to alienate those EU members that have declined to recognize Kosovo’s independence, and who might be concerned that a visa dialogue amounted to implicit recognition, or would even open the floodgates to illegal migration. These concerns are not justified. First, the experience with the other Balkan countries shows that a clear process centered on roadmaps with defined benchmarks has produced the swiftest reforms. Among other things, it requires a whole series of tough measures on migration control, including readmission agreements obliging the Balkan countries to take back any citizens found illegally residing in the EU. In addition, Kosovo is host to EULEX, the largest rule of law mission in the EU’s history. EULEX is attempting to achieve many of the same reforms that would be set out in a road map. The conditionality in the visa liberalization process would greatly increase its prospects of success. Second, visa liberalization for Kosovo is status neutral. After all, the Commission is currently in talks with Taiwan about abolishing the visa requirement, showing that international recognition and visa policy are two quite separate issues.
There are lessons here for other countries interested in free movement of their citizens: Turkey, Ukraine, even Georgia. The road to success lies in implementing very demanding conditions, and in seriously addressing the concerns of European citizens and European Interior Ministers. Progress is possible, however, when visa liberalization is seen not as a gift but as a matter of mutual interest, and if there is maximum transparency in evaluating whether conditions have actually been met. Conditionality – being strict and fair – is in the best interest not only of the EU but also of the countries that seek to obtain freedom of travel for their citizens.
Text: Gerald Knaus, founder and chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI)
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