Travel to Europe
Anxiety grew as a group of Kosovar university students awaited news of whether their visas would be ready in time for their long awaited dream-trip through Europe. It was the last day before their scheduled departure. Bags were already half packed. Finally, the organizer phoned in: the German Embassy had approved the students' trip. Their passports, stamped with tourist visas, were ready for pickup. Days later, in Berlin, the Kosovars would join a bigger group of 200 students from the Western Balkans on a journey around Europe, discovering places which most of them had only seen on TV.
A student from Albania would later describe the trip:
"After two days of unstopped journey we arrived at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof - central train station - where people from the [Robert Bosch Stiftung] were waiting for us and there we discovered just how many we were. Young people from southeast Europe all gathered to accomplish the same aim: being free to move and explore Europe."
Dena Sanxhaku, Albania
The students were very excited. They would not have been able to travel to Europe were it not for the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Balkan Trust for Democracy who – for the third year running – had invited some of the best and brightest students from the Balkans to travel to Europe.
As part of the program, students receive a free interrail ticket and a cash allowance for the duration of their trip. What makes the trip possible, however, is the Schengen visa, which the organizers obtain for each student. This year, on their second day in Berlin, students met former German president Richard von Weizsäcker and discussed the terrible events of WWII and the ensuing birth of the EU.
The experience left a lasting impression. As a student from Macedonia described it:
"I discovered so much about myself during this journey and learned so much. I learned how to read maps (plus I have a huge collection now), I learned the train stations of towns I've never heard of before, and I spend my last ounce of energy explaining [to people in Europe] where Macedonia is. At least some of them now know. This journey was life changing! Europe has so much to offer: diverse cultures, various languages, foods, unique architecture and a different way of life! I got to know Europe in her best light with hope that soon I can be able to visit it whenever I want to. Dreams can become reality!"
Violeta Stojanovska, Macedonia
Participating students from Serbia shared the dream of visa free travel to Europe:
"In Serbia many young people are excluded from this kind of experience, so we find ourselves very lucky to be a part of this project. But this 30-day-long experience also evoked some great wishes and future plans. It definitely determined our life goal to be part of international organizations that work on getting people together from all over the Europe, but also the World."
Dina Rakin und Relja Bozic, Serbia
(For more comments by students from Serbia please see: www.putujemouevropu.org)
The total number of students who were able to experience Europe firsthand through this project reached 600. If we want Europeanization to work in the Western Balkans, however, we must ensure that all students from the region be able to visit Europe. In the framework of the visa liberalization process for the Western Balkans, the European Commission has put forward a legislative proposal allowing citizens of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro to travel to Europe visa free as of late December or January 2010. Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina still have to meet a few additional conditions before they qualify for visa-free travel. And Kosovo, unfortunately, is still not even part of the visa liberalization process.
This means that only part of the Western Balkans will scale the Schengen wall. For citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo, long waiting lines in front of embassies and costly application fees will remain the norm. As those who experienced travel to Europe can tell, the importance of being able to see Europe firsthand cannot be exaggerated. One student from Kosovo explains:
"We have to be able to know these places that we can now only imagine, or that we've seen on electronic or print media, but that look so far away from the problems that emerge out of the Balkans. It is really up to us, as younger generations, to deal head-on with this division and to overcome it so we don't feel inferior any longer. Quite on the contrary, we should see ourselves as European because it is in Europe that we live."
Dafina Halili, Kosovo
Dzemil Ugarak, 52, director and owner of Ugarak Produkt
Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina
"Embassies should have more understanding for a company like mine…"
"My company produces PVC and aluminium windows and facades. We import raw materials and export our products to the EU. We have five trucks to do that, and altogether we have 76 employees. On average, we need 12 to 15 visas every year: for our drivers, but also for the technicians who have to show our European clients how to install our products.
"To get a visa is not cheap. First, there are some direct financial costs: at least 70 KM (35 EUR) per visa, this includes 25 EUR for the mandatory travel health insurance and 10 EUR for the Foreign Trade Chamber to support, in writing, the driver's request, or, if a technician is travelling, to endorse the invitation from the host company. But what costs me more is the time that my workers spend on getting a visa.
"They need to go to the embassy in Sarajevo twice – once to hand in the application, and once to pick up their visa. Each time, they need to drive from Visoko to Sarajevo (28km) and back again, which takes an hour by bus each way. If they go by car, we have to pay parking fees, which are considerable, up to 15 EUR. They need to wait at the embassies, which can take many hours. In the end, a visa easily costs me two working days per employee.
"And the pile of documents that is required! An application form, two photos, a passport plus a photocopy, a workbook plus a photocopy, a document from the health and pension funds confirming that all contributions have been paid, a driving licence approved by the Ministry of Transport, the certificate from the Foreign Trade Chamber, the travel insurance, a letter of invitation from our partner company with the provision that they will pay all costs that the traveller may incur in case he is not able to pay them… They usually also want to see a CPC licence - the Certificate of Professional Competence in National/International Road Haulage, which requires a half-year course at a cost of 500 EUR - and sometimes a school diploma, too.
"Our partner in the EU is the company Rehau Profile – so we have so far needed visas from Germany and Austria. More recently, there has been interest in our products in France and Belgium. In the end, we are very cheap, even if one has to pay the transport.
"In 2008, we lost a big contract from Paris because we could not get visas for seven technicians. The client was reluctant to sign the invitation letter, which requires guaranteeing payment of all costs caused by the travellers in case they do not pay themselves. He did not know us; it would have been our first deal, so it's understandable that he did not want to sign this.
"We had an invitation letter from Rehau Profile in Austria, but neither the French Embassy nor the Austrian Embassy accepted it, because the destination of our trip was France and only a French company should issue the invitation letter for France. The mechanics were mostly young and unmarried – potential migrants, as far as they were concerned.
"It is really difficult. Personally, I think that the embassies should have more understanding for a company like mine, which has successfully operated for 12 years, never committed any offence and which is trying hard to get a foothold in the European market."
Sanja Kostovska, 25, researcher
"I was upset by the humiliating and suspicious attitude of the consular staff."
"I have worked as a researcher for the Centre for Research and Policy Making, CRPM, in Skopje for three-and-a-half years. Most CRPM projects are regional projects and often require contacts with our partners, many of whom are based in EU member states. Moreover, the analyses on which I work have to be presented at conferences that are usually organised in an EU member state.
"I received the news of the visa facilitation agreement [which entered into force on 1 January 2008] with great optimism. I hoped that the visa procedure would become less problematic, given that I belong to one of the categories covered by the agreement.
"Unfortunately, my optimism did not last long. As a post-graduate student of European studies at the University of Graz, I had a one-year Schengen visa that expired on 1 September 2008. Soon afterwards, in October 2008, I was invited by PASOS, a network of think-tanks, to attend a meeting in Prague.
"On 2 October 2008, I applied for a visa at the Czech Embassy. The invitation from our partner in Prague was for the period of 18 to 22 October 2008. However, I applied for a longer period, until January 2009, based on a possibility provided for in Art. 5 of the visa facilitation agreement:
'2. Diplomatic missions and consular posts of the Member States shall issue multiple-entry visas with a term of validity of up to one year to the following categories of persons, provided that during the previous year they have obtained at least one visa, have made use of it in accordance with the laws on entry and stay of the visited State and that there are reasons for requesting a multiple-entry visa: (…) (e) Representatives of civil society organisations, travelling regularly to Member States for the purposes of educational training, seminars, conferences, including in the framework of exchange programmes.'
"I fulfilled all the criteria set down in this article and should have been entitled to a multi-entry visa up to 1 year:
"The next day, I was asked to come to the Embassy because there was a problem with the application. When I showed up, they told me that my application was inconsistent. They said I had to change the period for which I needed a visa to the four days mentioned in the invitation letter. Invoking the visa facilitation agreement, I refused to change my application – regardless of their warning that I might be refused the visa. I was completely shocked by the fact that one of the new provisions that should make life easier for visa applicants was seen as a threat in my case.
"Eventually, I got a single-entry visa for five days that I could use between 7 and 30 October 2008. The organisers of the event in Prague were even phoned by the consular staff of the Czech Embassy, who expressed their concern that I was trying to find a way to enter the Czech Republic for the purpose of moving and finding work (!?). They believed that, because of my 1-year stay as a student in the Schengen area, I would now have an interest in remaining in the Czech Republic. I was shocked again and upset by the humiliating and suspicious attitude of the consular staff."
Dejan Anastasijevic, 47, journalist
"Unbelievably, the question of Mr. Solana's invitation arose again…"
"In February of 2004, I was invited to participate in a conference on EU security jointly organized by the Office of Javier Solana and the London School of Economics, which was taking place in Brussels. When I applied for a visa to the Belgian Embassy, they first doubted the authenticity of Solana's invitation letter, it was faxed. After I provided the original, it was sent by DHL, I was told that Mr. Solana's invitation was invalid, since he was not a citizen of Belgium, and the EU 'is not a Belgian company'. Only after I asked them to put this in writing, so I could publish it in the newspapers, they agreed to grant me a visa. I got a one-entry Schengen visa valid for three days, it was a two-day conference.
"In April next year, I was invited to take part in the second part of the same conference, this time in Barcelona. Unbelievably, the question of Mr. Solana's invitation arose again: this time, the problem was that he was not a Spanish resident. And again, I eventually got the visa after threatening to write a newspaper article about the issue."
Mirela Shaqiri (pseudonym), 28, travel agent
(Real name known to ESI)
"I had to organise my trip three months in advance…"
"We often deal with Schengen country embassies at the travel agency because of the nature of our work. It has been easier for me than for our customers to get a visa since I know which documents the different embassies request and how they operate. But each time I applied for a visa there was an obstacle, which has made me wary. In total I have 5 to 6 Schengen visas in my passport, including a six-month visa for Italy.
"In 2007, I applied for a visa to take part in a four-day conference in Austria. I asked for a slightly longer period, but I only got a four-day visa, which was really disappointing. I almost missed my return flight, and I was really scared. If I had not caught it, I would have run the risk of not getting a Schengen visa again.
"In 2008, I applied for visa to go to a fair in Italy in November. I knew that I had to fix an appointment well in advance to hand in my visa application since the waiting times at the Italian Embassy are very long. So it was. I called the Italian Embassy in July and got an appointment in October, two-and-a-half months later!
"What's more, the application cost me 15,000 Albanian lek (120 EUR) because I had to have quite a few documents translated, notarised and legalised. The documentation included the application form, my passport plus a photocopy, my birth certificate, my employment contract, various documents regarding our business such as the court registration and a fiscal declaration, a letter from our director, and bank account statements.
"I got the visa with no further questions asked, so I considered myself lucky. However, I had to organise my trip three months in advance and spent a considerable amount of money on the application. All that for a single sticker: a Schengen visa."
Stanislavka Radulovic, 33, marketing director at Jastreb
"I not only missed out on an interesting trip, but also lost 320 EUR.”
"In Montenegro my company is one of the leaders in the production of flour, bread and bread products. In the autumn of 2008, I attended a three-month training programme in business development organised by the Montenegrin Agency for the Development of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in cooperation with Austrian Chamber of Commerce. At the end, all participants had to take a test; those who were successful would be invited to Austria to visit companies active in the same line of work and to meet with Austrian businesspeople. I, along with twelve other participants, passed the test.
"In early April 2009, the Austrian Chamber of Commerce e-mailed us a scan of the invitation letter, which stated that they would bear all costs related to our stay in Vienna and listed all our names. Such letters are needed for visa applications.
"There is a Joint Application Centre in Podgorica that processes visa applications for several Schengen countries, including Austria. I called the JAC on 10 April and asked for an appointment as early as possible to hand over my application, explaining that I would need to leave in ten days; the study visit was scheduled for 20 to 24 April. However, they said the earliest possible date to receive me was 14 April.
"On 14 April I arrived at the JAC with all the necessary documentation: application form, photos, passport plus copy, letter of invitation, employment booklet plus copy, M1 form confirming that Jastreb covers my health insurance, proof of employment, and proof of purchase of my airplane ticket, including all the flight details.
"After briefly examining the paperwork, the JAC employee asked me for the original invitation letter as well as its translation - the letter was in German - into 'an understandable language, such as English or Montenegrin' (?!?). Fortunately, I had had the letter translated into Montenegrin. But I did not have the original – I only had the scanned copy. The employee also remarked that I was too late, anyway, since the visa could not be issued before 23 April, while I needed it for 20 April.
"Stunned by this unexpected turn of events, I contacted the other participants to see how their visa applications were going. First, I found that the JAC had already received the original invitation letter: the Austrian Chamber of Commerce had sent it to them long ago. Second, I learnt that all the visas – except that of a colleague who faced problems similar to mine – were being processed. I called the Montenegrin Agency for the Development of SMEs and asked for help.
"The result of their intervention was an appointment at the JAC at 10.00am the next day, 15 April. The agency told us that the Slovenian consul – Slovenia runs the JAC – had been informed of our case and that everything would be resolved. However, when my colleague and I arrived at the JAC, an employee simply gave us the original invitation letter (which we never asked for), stating that this was all that she had been instructed to do.
"The two of us called the agency again, which again said that everything had been agreed with the consul and that we should go back to the JAC and insist that the staff check with their superiors. We went back, therefore, and waited several hours – to no avail. At one point, an employee told us that discussions between those who tried to intervene on our behalf and the consul did not go well.
"In the end, we failed to get the visas – and lost a great opportunity to establish business connections with colleagues from Austrian companies. Our eleven colleagues who had presented the same documentation to the JAC got their visas and went on the trip.
"But this was not the end of the story. I had already bought an airplane ticket for 320 EUR because I thought this would help my application. The travel agency normally refunds tickets if one brings documentation of their visa application having been rejected. I had raised the issue with the JAC on 15 April, but had not come very far.
"I went back to the JAC on 22 April to try to obtain such a certificate, only to hear that they could not issue any – because they did not have any record of my application! I asked whether I could file another application, just to get the piece of paper, but they refused: the invitation letter, they argued, referred to the period of 20 to 24 April, and it was already 22 April. I not only missed out on an interesting trip, therefore, but also lost 320 EUR."
Lejla Cakic, 28, student of social work
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
"You never know how difficult it will be to get a visa…"
"I have an aunt who lives in Vienna. She has been there since 1968, and she was naturalised in 1970. I visit her occasionally, but you never know how difficult it will be to get a visa. I went to see her in 2000 for the first time, right after I had finished school. The Austrian Embassy told me that they considered me a risk case since I no longer had a reason to return to Bosnia – no school, no job, etc. I got the visa after a friend of my aunt, who worked for the Austrian government, called the Embassy. My second visit was in 2002 and went well.
"In April 2008, I applied for a visa once again. I thought that this time I should have no problem, especially since a visa facilitation agreement had entered into force in January 2008.
"It took me four days to put together all the documents I needed: the filled Schengen visa application form; two colour photos; a passport valid for at least three months after the visa expiry date, plus a photocopy; confirmation of my health, pension and disability insurance status - as I am a student, I am covered through my father; confirmation of my enrolment at university; travel health insurance with minimum coverage of 30,000 EUR; a letter of guarantee from my aunt that she would cover any and all costs I might incur in Austria, for example, if I get sick and run up a huge hospital bill or if I overstay my visa and need to be deported; and a payslip from my father, to show that I have adequate financial means for the trip.
"On 17 April, I went to the Embassy, waited for an hour and then handed in all the paperwork. I asked for a 9-day visa, from 25 April to 3 May, so I could take advantage of the 1 May holidays. I had to pay the visa fee of 35 EUR: students are exempt from paying it if they travel for study purposes, whereas I wanted to see my aunt.
"A few days later, the Embassy called. They wanted information from my university about the date of the summer exams, whether I was planning to take them, and whether the university would let me miss a few lectures while I would be in Vienna. I asked why they needed all that, and they said it was because I wanted to go on a trip in the middle of a semester. That was ridiculous! I would have missed three working days; all the other days were weekends or holidays!
"When I asked the university administration for the extra documents, they said they had never issued – and could not issue – anything of the sort. It took a lot of persuading to convince the university official to do so.
"The same day I brought the extra documents to the Embassy and received the visa for exactly the period I had requested – not a day less, not a single day more."
Gledis Gjipali, 27, project manager
"I will again have to apply for a visa, wasting time, money and dignity."
"I work as a project manager for the European Movement in Albania, an NGO devoted to the European integration process. In early April 2009, I applied for a Schengen visa at the Hungarian Embassy in Tirana since I was invited to participate in a civil society congress organised by the European Commission and the European Movement International, to be held in Slovenia. In Albania, the Hungarian Embassy is responsible for issuing Slovenian visas.
"Preparing the documentation for the application was quite a story. Although I have a new ID card with biometric data, the Hungarian Embassy still requires legalised birth certificates. They still do not trust that our birth certificates are genuine. It took me three days to legalise my birth certificate: on the first day, I had to get it from the civil registry; on the second day, I had to legalise it at the prefecture, the administrative district office; and on the third day, I had to legalise it at the ministry of foreign affairs. Legalising the document at the prefecture is free of cost, but you have to come there in the morning to submit it and again in the afternoon to pick it up. The legalisation at the foreign ministry is done by post, in one day, but it cost the equivalent of 4.20 EUR.
"I applied for a one-year multi-entry visa since I frequently travel to different European countries to meet with our partners and I have a positive track record when it comes to Schengen visas. However, what I got was a single-entry, six-day visa since, according to letter of invitation, the congress lasted four days. I was disappointed.
"The visa facilitation agreement, which entered into force on 1 January 2008, offers people with a positive track record the possibility of obtaining a multiple-entry long-term visa. This is my case. I have eight previous Schengen visas in my passport, ranging from three days to one year. I used to work at the Albanian Ministry of European Integration for four years and travelled a lot at the time. My first Schengen visa dates back to 2003 when I had an official meeting in the EU. The last time I entered the Schengen area was in November 2008 when I coached Albanian high school students to debate as MEPs in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
"Unfortunately, the next time I have to attend a meeting in a Schengen country, I will again have to apply for a visa and prepare the required documents, wasting time, money and dignity."
"We did not even get a day or two extra, in case of an emergency."
"Having received an invitation from the International Theatre Festival in Berg, Austria, our troupe was supposed to perform there in May 2008. Early on we requested an appointment with the Austrian Embassy and asked for information about the visa application procedure. We also informed them that we were going to have several other shows outside of Macedonia in 2008 – so we asked what we needed to do in order to get a longer-term Schengen visa.
"The consular section of the Austrian Embassy told us that we needed to provide invitations from the festival organisers and several other supporting documents. According to the 2008 visa facilitation agreement, documentation requirements for us as cultural-sector employees are supposed to be less stringent than for other workers – but the Austrian Embassy didn't really keep to that rule. We had to provide bank statements and copious amounts of 'relevant' documentation. So much for 'facilitation'!
"Anyway, we met all the requirements and applied. We requested a minimum six-month visa, considering that we had to be at a festival in Lithuania in October. However, the Embassy gave us a visa valid for only seven days – only for the duration of the festival in Berg. We did not even get a day or two extra, in case of an emergency.
"After our return from Austria, we complained to all the relevant institutions. We informed the office of Erwan Fouéré, the EU Special Representative in Macedonia. The Macedonian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Antonio Milososki, reacted by requesting a meeting with the Austrian ambassador. Igor Ivkovic, one of our actors, also took part in the meeting: he explained the problem and was assured by the ambassador that there was a mistake and that this mistake would be corrected – even though the consulate is a separate and independent institution from the Embassy.
"A few days afterwards, Igor got a call from the Austrian Embassy. They apologised and told him that they could not correct the mistake, but if we applied again, they would be more helpful.
"However, we did not have a visa and feared that we might miss the October festival in Lithuania. Luckily, the Hungarian Embassy, which represents Lithuania in Macedonia, gave us the visa we needed. They even gave us a visa for a longer stay, because the cooperation with the Lithuanian International Festival would continue in the coming year as well."
Biljana M., 24, BA in political science
(Full name known to ESI)
"I have wasted almost a year of my time, and quite a lot of money…"
"In January of 2007, I started preparing for post-graduate studies in Belgium. It took a lot of time and effort, but I thought I fulfilled all requirements: excellent grades, high scores at IELTS and TOEFL, letters of reference, etc. The international school in Belgium accepted my diploma from the Belgrade University and approved my enrolment without much hassle.
"I submitted my visa application to the Belgian Consulate in Belgrade in July of 2007. Among other documents, I submitted a letter of guarantee from my parents guaranteeing that they would cover all costs I might cause abroad. (I was told by the Embassy that the person providing the letter does not have to have EU citizenship or residence, but has to prove minimum earnings of 1,300 euros per month). After two months, my visa was rejected, on the grounds that I failed to provide a letter of guarantee from a Belgian citizen or resident – although I was initially told that this was not required.
"In November of 2007, I applied again, this time with the guarantee letter from a person who is both a EU citizen and a resident of Belgium. After more than two months of waiting, I was told that there had been 'a technical mistake', and that my application was never processed. They promised that they will review it, though.
"Two days later, I was told that I was rejected again. The letter of guarantee was deemed 'invalid' because the person who signed it had failed to add a handwritten 'lu et approuvé' (read and approved) note above his signature on one of the documents (Annex 32). At the Belgian municipality which issues these forms, he was never told that this was required, and when he went there to complain and to ask for another set of forms, he was told that the case was closed anyway. As I went to the Embassy to pick up my passport, I was told that they were not really convinced that I intended to study in Belgium.
"In February this year, I applied for a Belgian tourist visa. My fiancé, a Serbian citizen, lives and works in Belgium, and I went there and back last year without any problems. This time, however, I was rejected on the grounds that my earlier student visa applications were rejected, and that they suspected my real intention was to stay and study.
"I have wasted almost a year of my time, and quite a lot of money, gathering all the documents. I still have a chance of enrolling next year – provided I get a student visa next time."
Hil Nrecaj, 35, lawyer
"They were asked why they couldn't just come and visit me in Kosovo…"
"In the summer of 2002, my Austrian girlfriend invited me to Vienna to visit her parents. It took us several days to prepare all the necessary documents. To be on the safe side, we included letters of invitation from my girlfriend and from her parents, copies of my bank statements, copies of her bank statements, copies of both our passports and copies of our employment contracts with the UN Mission in Kosovo. We also included the necessary form signed by my girlfriend making her liable for any costs I may cause to the Austrian state [such as costs arising from medical treatment or abuse of the visa and deportation]. In addition, I needed to purchase international health insurance and provide pictures for the visa application.
"The nearest Austrian embassy where I could apply as a Kosovar was in Skopje. I left Pristina at 4:30 in the morning to join the long queue in front of the Austrian Embassy. After hours of being pushed around and shouted at by the security guards, I was finally able to hand in my application. I was interviewed for less than five minutes and then sent home. It was the first time that I applied for a Schengen visa, but I was hopeful that thanks to all the documentation and my employment contract with the UN Mission, I would not be rejected.
"I waited, but there were no news from the embassy. My girlfriend tried to phone the embassy in Skopje to find out what happened to my application, but she was told that they could not provide any information over the phone. After several weeks, her parents called the Austrian Ministry of Interior to find out more; to their great surprise, they were asked why they had invited me in the first place and why they couldn't just come and visit me in Kosovo (!). Eventually, I received an email stating that my application was rejected.
"When my girlfriend arrived in Vienna – on her own – she found a letter that had been sent to her from the Foreigners' Police in Vienna inviting her for an interview 'concerning her invitation and relationship with Mr. Nrecaj'. By that time, however, my application had already been rejected."
Comment from ESI: Kosovo is not part of the EU visa liberalisation process since its independence has not been recognised by all EU member states. However, it is crucial to find a solution for the citizens of Kosovo since they will find themselves isolated and disadvantaged if the visa restrictions for all their neighbours are eventually lifted.