2013 could be a big year for visa free travel in Europe, with important decisions upcoming concerning Turkey and Moldova. It could also be a disastrous year for the cause of free travel if visas are reimposed on the Western Balkans.
It is appropriate, therefore, that the first report ESI publishes in 2013 – on 1 January to be precise – deals with this very question. You will find the full report on our website later this week, but if you want an advance copy right away let me know (write to firstname.lastname@example.org). Below you find for now the executive summary and some of the most interesting findings as exerpts from this report. We also recently presented these findings to senior officials in Rome, Berlin, Brussels and Stockholm.
In the meantime the whole ESI team and your Rumeli Observer wish you a happy and productive 2013!
NEW ESI REPORT – 1 January 2013
Saving visa-free travel – Visa, asylum and the EU roadmap policy
Since the visa requirement was lifted for Western Balkan countries in 2009, there has been a sharp increase in claims for political asylum by citizens of the region. Barely any of these applicants qualify for asylum. Rather, they are benefitting from national
asylum rules that provide relatively generous benefits during the application process.
Since 2010, EU leaders have demanded that Balkan governments take measures to stem this tide of asylum seekers. In fact, the problem lies with ‘pull factors’ inside the EU. Now, EU policymakers find themselves under increasing pressure to address the problem directly by suspending visa-free travel for Western Balkan countries. Such a draconian measure would undermine the credibility of the EU’s whole approach to visa liberalisation – not just in the Western Balkans, but also in Moldova, Kosovo, Turkey and the Ukraine. But it is by no means the only solution available.
In the world of justice and home affairs, clear-cut solutions to complex issues are generally hard to come by. There are inevitable trade-offs to be made between controlling borders and allowing the free movement of people; between protecting individual liberties and safeguarding the public. When it comes to visa liberalisation in the Balkans, however, there is a clear solution that reconciles the concerns of all the different constituencies involved. The solution is to make it less attractive for those who clearly do not qualify for asylum to submit speculative or bogus claims.
Under EU rules, all member states provide asylum seekers with financial and material support while their applications are being processes. But there is a sharp difference between two groups of countries: those that take many months to process their asylum
claims, and those that dispose of them within a few weeks. It is the lengthy processing times found in Germany, Sweden and other EU members (up to 8 months with appeals) that acts as the magnet for unjustified asylum seekers. The EU members able to deal expeditiously with asylum claims face a significantly lower numbers of applications.
This paper proposes two possible solutions. One is to address the problem at the national level. Those states that have seen a sharp increase in applications from the Balkans could radically shorten their procedures. They could follow the example of Switzerland, which has recently introduced a 48-hour procedure for applicants from safe European countries like the Balkans. The other option is to tackle the problem at the EU level. The EU should label countries that have completed a visa liberalisation process as “safe countries of origin”, allowing for lighter and quicker processing procedures. We believe that the ideal response would be to pursue both solutions in parallel.
Such a solution would not close off the rights of genuine refugees to apply for and receive asylum. The statistics reveal that countries with shorter procedures in fact accept a higher proportion of their asylum applications. It would, however, help to weed out speculative claims and bring down the costs for European taxpayers. It would also safeguard visa-free travel for the Western Balkans, which has proved a critical step in giving hope and a sense of direction to a troubled region on the EU’s borders.
Update: the full report is now available on our website