The Council decision giving Albania and Bosnia visa-free travel (8 November 2010)
On 8 November 2010, the Justice and Home Affairs Council unanimously adopted the Commission proposal of 27 May 2010 to abolish the visa restrictions for the citizens of Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This decision is likely to go into effect on 15 December, after it is officially signed and published in the Official Journal of the EU. It will mean that the citizens of all Western Balkan countries except Kosovo will be able to travel without a visa to 28 Schengen/associated Schengen countries.
In May 2010, the Commission had proposed to lift the visa restrictions if Bosnia and Albania meet a number of remaining open benchmarks. In September 2010, the Commission confirmed that all conditions had been reached.
Prior to the Council vote, the European Parliament had voted on 7 October 2010 in favour of abolishing the visa obligation for Albanians and Bosnians. Under the Lisbon Treaty, which went into effect on 1 December 2009, the European Parliament and the Council are co-decision makers on an equal footing.
The decision-making process for Albania and Bosnia was more difficult and drawn-out than that for Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia a year earlier. Despite a political declaration by the Council and the Parliament in November 2009 that they would treat the case of Albania and Bosnia “as a matter of urgency”, it took another year until all the member states could agree that the two countries were ready. Until the last minute, there was reluctance. In September, France, the Netherlands and Denmark raised objections. ESI responded with a widely reported commentary, reminding in particular France that back-tracking on the promise of visa-free travel in return for far-reaching reforms would undermine the credibility of the EU in the Balkans. Just before the Council decision on 8 November, Germany, Denmark and Slovakia became hesitant. It took the Commission and supportive member states efforts to convince them to stay on board.
At France's insistence, the Commission committed itself at the JHA Council to establishing two mechanisms to prevent potential negative consequences of granting visa-free travel to the five Western Balkan countries: The Commission will monitor that the countries continue the reforms they had to undertake to qualify for visa-free travel. This will discussed in regular meetings that the Commission has with the authorities of these states, and it will be taken up in the annual progress reports that the Commission issues. In addition, the Commission will introduce emergency consultation arrangements so that EU member states, the Commission and the governments of the Western Balkan countries can quickly react to sudden increases in asylum requests and irregular migration. In this regard, the Commission will have the right to suggest suspending the visa-free travel. The background is that in 2010 there has been an increase in asylum requests from Serbian and Macedonian citizens in Sweden, Germany and Belgium.
Both Albania and Bosnia were also required to run public information campaigns explaining to their citizens that visa-free travel only entitles to a stay of a maximum of 3 months within a 6-month period in the Schengen area and is neither a work permit, nor a residence permit; that only holders of biometric passports can travel visa-free; and that the chances of asylum seekers from Albania and Bosnia to be granted protection in an EU country are minimal.