Press conference, from left to right:SG/HR Javier SOLANA,Mr Karel SCHWARZENBERG, Czech Minister for Foreign Affairs (Presidency),Mr Alexandr VONDRA, Czech deputy Prime Minister, President of the Council,Commissioner Benita FERRERO WALDNER,Commissioner Olli REHN
Press conference, from left to right: SG/HR Javier SOLANA, Mr Karel SCHWARZENBERG, Czech Minister for Foreign Affairs (Presidency), Mr Alexandr VONDRA, Czech deputy Prime Minister, President of the Council, Commissioner Benita FERRERO WALDNER, Commissioner Olli REHN. Photo: Council of the European Union 2009

EU foreign ministers

During the visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans, the foreign ministers of Italy and Slovenia, Franco Frattini and Samuel Zbogar, have strongly supported it and repeatedly appealed on their colleagues to do their best to ensure quick progress.

On 11 March 2009, the two foreign ministers asked the Czech EU Presidency to push for further EU enlargement in the Western Balkans and highlighted the importance of liberalising the visa regime in 2009.

On 4 April 2009, the two foreign ministers as well as their counterparts from Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia – eight ministers in total - urged the European Commission and the Czech EU Presidency to accelerate decision-making in the visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans, with a view to ensuring visa-free travel to the EU by early 2010 latest.

Following the 30 November 2009 decision of EU member states to abolish the visa requirement for Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbians from 19 December 2009 on, the Italian and Slovenian foreign ministers wrote a letter again, this time to Foreign Minister Carl Bildt of Sweden, which held the EU Presidency in the second half of 2009. They called for focusing on Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina now and providing them with the necessary support so that they could be included in the visa-free regime during the Spanish Presidency (1 January to 30 June 2010).

On 26 April 2010, the Italian and Slovenian foreign ministers initiated again a joint letter, which was co-signed by another ten foreign ministers: of Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. They wrote to Spanish foreign minister Miguel Moratinos, expressing their support to Presidency's willingness "to announce a clear way forward for a visa liberalisation decision for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina" at a planned EU/Western Balkan foreign ministers' meeting in Sarajevo in early June. This decision would relate to a legislative proposal to be tabled by the Commission at the end of May. The foreign ministers also implied at the possibility to debate the proposal at the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 3 and 4 June 2010.

 

European Parliament

On 24 April 2009, the European Parliament adopted a resolution, prepared by Swedish MEP Anna Ibrigasic (European People's Party – European Democrats), on "Consolidating stability and prosperity in the Western Balkans". 305 MEPs voted in favour, 23 against and there were 12 abstentions. Among other things, the Resolution states:

"The European Parliament […]:

17. Stresses the importance of a liberalisation of the Schengen visa regime for the citizens of the countries of the Western Balkans as a means of acquainting the people of the region with the European Union; welcomes the dialogue on visa liberalisation and urges the Council and the Commission to conduct the process in as transparent a manner as possible and with clearly defined benchmarks, in order to facilitate external monitoring and increase public accountability of the process;

18. Points out that a cumbersome visa procedure, compounded by the understaffing of consulates and embassies in the region, is liable to generate hostility towards the EU among the people of the region, at a time when the Union's popularity is implicitly the biggest stimulus to reform;

19. Encourages the countries of the Western Balkans to accelerate their efforts to fulfil the requirements set out in the individual roadmaps, so as to ensure the removal of the visa regime for their countries as rapidly as possible; believes that the fulfilment of these conditions is crucial to accelerating the process of accession to the European Union; is in this context of the opinion that the IPA [Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance] should support the efforts made by the beneficiary countries to meet the requirements laid down in the roadmap for visa liberalisation."

The Parliament's support of visa-free travel for the citizens of all Western Balkans countries, including Kosovo, was later reflected in the result of the vote on the report about the Commission July 2009 visa proposal. The vote took place on 12 November 2009. With 550 votes in favour, 51 against and 37 abstentions, the MEPs welcomed the abolition of the visa requirement for Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbians; urged a quick decision-making process for Albania and Bosnia; and asked for a visa dialogue including a visa roadmap for Kosovo.

Ahead of this Parliament's session, MEP Tanja Fajon (Socialists) - the EP rapporteur on visa-free travel for Western Balkans countries, from the LIBE Committee - was able to negotiate with EU member states a "Joint Statement by the European Parliament and the Council", which the Parliament adopted on 12 November. The statement was aimed at making sure that Albania and Bosnia are granted visa-free travel as soon as they meet the conditions:

"The European Parliament and the Council invite the Commission to present a legislative proposal for amending Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 as soon as it has assessed that each country meets the benchmarks set out in the Commission's roadmaps, with a view to achieving visa liberalisation for citizens of those countries as soon as possible.

"The European Parliament and the Council will examine a proposal for amending Regulation (EC) No 539/2001 concerning Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina as a matter of urgency."

Following the delivery of the Parliament's opinion on 12 November 2009, the Council was able to take a vote on the Commission's visa proposal on 30 November 2009. It approved visa-free travel for the citizens of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, which became effective on 19 December 2009.

In December 2009 and in February 2010, the Commission sent experts' missions to Albania and Bosnia, which assessed the status of roadmap implementation in these two countries. The results are apparently satisfactory, so that a new legislative Commission proposal recommending the abolition of the visa requirement for Albania and Bosnia is expected in the coming months.

On 23 February 2010, the European Commission updated the LIBE Committee on this matter, presenting the expected time frame of work. The Commission announced that it would present the final assessments of progress in Albania and Bosnia only in mid-April. Given the time that it takes the Commission to put forward a legislative draft and the time it takes the European Parliament and the Council to adopt it even if they treat it as "a matter of urgency" (see "The EU Decision-making Process"), this would mean that Albania and Bosnia could not be granted visa-free travel before the summer. In fact, the first JHA Council meeting after the summer is on 7/8 October 2010. So the earliest date for visa-free travel for the two countries would be end of October/early November.

On 2 March 2010, the LIBE Committee sent a letter to the Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, asking her to speed up the process and to make sure that the Parliament receives the legislative proposal – and not the assessments – in April. Only this schedule, wrote the Chair of the LIBE Committee,

"will allow the Parliament and the Council to fulfil our promise of the November declaration where it was declared that the proposal would be dealt with 'as a matter of urgency'. […]

"Any delay […] diminishes Parliament's ability to complete the legislative procedure before the summer recess."

(Also see ESI's letter on that matter to EU officials.)

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