Measures aimed at making it easier for citizens of Western Balkan countries to travel to the EU were the topics of a conference organised by the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) in Brussels at which ESI Senior Analyst Alexandra Stiglmayer spoke. The two measures are the visa facilitation agreements in force since 1 January 2008, and the visa liberalisation process that the EU launched this year. The visa liberalisation process is centred on a set of benchmarks listed in visa roadmaps, which the countries need to meet to qualify for visa-free travel. The countries participating in the process are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
Alexandra Stiglmayer said that the visa facilitation measures did not make it much easier for Western Balkan citizens to obtain visas and that the five Western Balkan countries, all of which are official or potential candidates for membership, deserved visa-free travel. "Politically it is absurd that the EU has promised the Western Balkan countries a European future, but continues to make it difficult for their 20 million citizens to visit the EU," she said.
She added that the promise of talks on visa liberalisation was first made in Thessaloniki in 2003 and that it had taken far too long to make good on the promise by launching the current visa dialogues. She also said that frontrunners like Macedonia, which the European Commission expects to fulfil all the benchmarks next year, must be given visa-free travel for the current visa liberalisation process to be credible.
ECAS presented the results of a project that showed that the visa facilitation agreements did not make the cumbersome process of obtaining visas for entry into the Schengen area much easier. ECAS partner organisations had surveyed visa applicants at Schengen embassies and consulates in the Western Balkans and set up telephone hotlines where citizens could talk about their experiences.