Arriving in Skopje. Photo: flickr/CharlesFred
EU/Balkans Visa Decision: Winners and Losers. Photo: flickr/CharlesFred

Welcome - and then change – the EU proposal on Balkan Visa

Gerald Knaus and Alex Stiglmayer

16 July 2009

Note: This op-ed was originally published on Balkan Insight.

Yesterday, the European Commission proposed for the EU to move three West Balkan states - Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia - from the Black onto the White Schengen List.

If the proposal is adopted by EU member states as planned before the end of this year, it will be a momentous step for the Balkan region. Macedonia was on the verge of civil war in 2001. Montenegro only became an independent state in 2006. For the citizens of all three countries, traveling visa-free to the EU from early 2010 onwards – for the first time since the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia – will be a cause for celebration. For reformers, it will be a much needed signal that their efforts are paying off.

Getting to this stage was anything but easy. The reforms required to meet the almost 50 precise EU criteria ranged from equipping border crossings to increasing document security and deepening police cooperation.  As two former interior ministers, Italy's Giuliano Amato and Germany's Otto Schily, told us during a meeting of the advisory board of the ESI White List Project this week in Istanbul, such reforms make Europe safer and the visa requirement redundant. This is truly a win-win situation.

This is also a time of great political and economic uncertainty in the Balkans. In order for EU conditionality to deliver results, the European Commission must be strict when it comes to setting out conditions and fair when it comes to assessing progress and delivering on the EU's promises. Doing so goes a long way towards restoring the EU's credibility.

So far, so good... but incomplete.

The Commission's proposal leaves two countries – Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina – on the Black List. It also adds Kosovo "under UN Security Council resolution 1244" to the negative list as an "entity and territorial authority not recognised as a state by at least one member state."

Influential critics in the European Parliament, led by Daniel Cohn Bendit and other European Greens, already complain that the EU is leaving some of the most fragile states, those who have experienced the worst tragedies of the last two decades, out in the cold. Is it morally justified to allow Serbian citizens in Belgrade visa free travel while denying it to the relatives of Bosniak victims of the Srebrenica genocide?

Critics are rightly concerned about a new worst-case scenario: a situation where Bosniaks, Albanians and Kosovars find themselves imprisoned inside a new, even smaller enclave. Where Bosnia is torn apart by centrifugal tendencies as Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs obtain the passports of the neighbouring states, leaving Bosniaks isolated. As one Turkish paper titled today: "European Union leaves Bosnian Muslims out in the cold, once again."  

At the same time, it is necessary to remember that the road to visa free travel is clearly marked out for all the countries involved. By judging all the countries by the same rules, the European Commission has made a fair proposal. Based on roadmap conditions, only those Balkan citizens who hold new biometric passports will be able to benefit from visa-free travel. Due to botched tenders, delays and lack of focus, however, BiH has delayed the introduction of such passports till early 2010! Albania, while ahead of Bosnia, is also behind its more successful neighbours in introducing them. 

ESI analysts have in recent weeks examined in great detail the implementation record of each country. The good news is that, given the right focus, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania can reach Serbia's current record on implementation within the next 12 months.

Bearing this in mind, we call on EU member states to send a signal to the citizens of both countries by moving Bosnia and Albania onto the White List now, but with the actual application of visa-free travel suspended until all conditions are met. We also call on the EU to respond to suspicions of bias through full transparency of its decision making.  

While Bosnian and Albanian citizens will certainly be disappointed today, they will hardly be surprised: the EU's score card was, after all, known for weeks already. They know that if certain conditions are met visa-free travel is within reach. Bosnians can also see that they have many friends in Europe, who protest at the very suspicion of discrimination.

There is no such hope for Kosovars, for whom the proposal is an unmitigated disaster. For the EU's credibility in Kosovo, it is devastating.  

Witness the hypocrisy: for years, when it came to repatriation, the EU considered Kosovo residents Serbian citizens according to Serbian citizenship laws. Now the Commission requires Serbia to issue entirely separate passports to all Kosovo residents. Putting a big 'K' in all passports issued to Kosovars would have been a blatant mark of discrimination. The proposal, therefore, resorts to a gimmick: all passports for Kosovo residents are to be issued by one special office (Koordinaciona uprava) in Belgrade – and no such passport will have visa-free access.

Consider the consequences. For years, the EU preached the value of a multiethnic Kosovo. Now Kosovo Serbs are asked to get resident status in Serbia – abandoning Kosovo – if they want to have passports that allow them to travel in Europe.

Some Kosovars who consider the idea of their citizens applying for a passport in Belgrade as a form of treason have prematurely welcomed this. They ignore the fact that the decision to exclude Kosovars in this discriminatory manner is "motivated exclusively by objectively determined security concerns", as the Commission explains, not by any emerging European consensus on Kosovo status. While many Moldovans, Turkish Cypriots or Argentinians can obtain EU member state passports (in Romania, Cyprus or Spain) based on these countries' national laws on citizenship, and then travel visa free to Europe, Kosovars holding dual citizenship cannot "in view of security concerns regarding in particular potential for illegal migration" (EC, Explanatory Memorandum).

What's more, the Commission does not even mention the possibility of a future roadmap for Kosovo. All Kosovars are seen as a security problem while all Bosnian Serbs can apply for Serbian citizenship, a Serbian passport, and then travel to the EU without raising any such concerns.

If adopted in its current form, the Commission's proposal undermines any notion that current EU members hold out a European perspective for Kosovo. After all, if putting Kosovo on the Black List does not require an EU consensus on its status, then neither should giving it a road map towards the White List.

"Strict but fair" conditionality has worked in Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. It is likely to work in Bosnia and Albania in the near future (and it is vital that civil society in Europe and the Balkans insist on transparency in the way these decisions are made). It is in the EU's interest that it also works in Kosovo.

The Commission proposal is a welcome first step. It needs to be modified, however, in order to prevent new tensions and problems.

Gerald Knaus and Alexandra Stiglmayer are founders of and senior analysts with the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank that has been continuously monitoring the visa liberalisation process in the Balkans.



Further reading:

The Schengen White List Project