[Comment] Visa-free travel in the Balkans


6 December 2009

This comment was originally published on EUobserver. It is also available in Albanian.

EUOBSERVER / COMMENT - The recent EU decision to grant visa-free travel to Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbians has brought celebrations to a region all too often trapped in gloom.

"Europe opens its doors," announced a Montenegrin daily. "The Schengen Wall has fallen," rejoiced Serbia's public broadcaster. A Serbian airline promptly offered promotional flights to Schengen countries under the slogan "Europe for all of us".

After almost two decades of isolation, it is great news that citizens of these three countries will be able to travel without a visa to the Schengen zone from 19 December. The visa requirement was counterproductive for the EU members-in-waiting. It hampered business and created a psychological barrier that made citizens sceptical about a European future.

The EU is also getting a lot in return. As a condition of visa-free travel, the Balkan countries had to carry out far-reaching reforms in the areas of border control, passport security and the fight against organised crime, corruption and illegal migration. These measures make all of Europe safer.

However, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are not yet part of this happy group.

With its international status still unresolved, Kosovo is the most burning issue. Until very recently, there was even no prospect of visa liberalisation for Kosovo. But last October, the Commission promised a "visa dialogue" with the perspective of eventual liberalisation, conditional on the necessary reforms. However, unlike for the other Western Balkan countries, the EU did not announce a visa roadmap setting out all the reforms that Kosovo will have to undertake. The process was left vaguer.

There are obvious reasons for beating around the bush. The Commission did not want to alienate those EU members that have declined to recognise Kosovo's independence, and who might be concerned that a visa dialogue amounted to implicit recognition, or would even open the floodgates to illegal migration.

These concerns are not justified. First, the experience with the other Balkan countries shows that a clear process centred on roadmaps with defined benchmarks has produced the swiftest reforms. Among other things, it requires a whole series of tough measures on migration control, including readmission agreements obliging the Balkan countries to take back any citizens found illegally residing in the EU. In addition, Kosovo is host to EULEX, the largest rule of law mission in the EU's history. EULEX is attempting to achieve many of the same reforms that would be set out in a road map. The conditionality in the visa liberalisation process would greatly increase its prospects of success.

Second, visa liberalisation for Kosovo can be entirely status neutral. After all, the Commission is currently in talks with Taiwan about abolishing the visa requirement, showing that international recognition and visa policy are two quite separate issues. So, there are many reasons for the EU foreign ministers meeting on 7 and 8 December to invite the Commission now to draft a visa roadmap for Kosovo, making clear that this would be without prejudice to its status.

Encouraging Balkan rivalry

The ministers could also accelerate the process of abolishing the visa requirement for Albania and Bosnia. When the EU proposed scrapping visas for Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia last July, Albania and Bosnia were still dragging their feet on the conditions. Since then, however, they have made huge progress and will soon have ticked all the boxes. The question is thus no longer whether they will qualify for visa-free travel next year, but when next year.

There is everything to be gained from an early decision to preserve the momentum and ensure that Albanians and Bosnians do not feel discriminated against. The EU foreign ministers could set a target date for the start of visa-free travel well before the summer vacation, May or June 2010.

This would require the Commission to organise the assessment missions – there will probably be three to each country - as soon as possible. The first two are already scheduled for December, which is encouraging. Assuming a positive outcome of the mission, the Commission, Parliament and Council will then have to work swiftly to amend the relevant Regulation.

In the meantime, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia have to make sure that visa-free travel for the Balkans remains a success story. They must continue to press ahead with the roadmap reforms, leaving no doubt as to their continuing commitment to meeting EU standards.

They could also publicise the positive benefits of visa freedom. Is the number of Western Balkan students in the EU increasing? Is trade with the EU flourishing? Are there more cross-cultural events?

The visa liberalisation process has been an excellent example of EU soft power at work. There were very clear conditions, a rigorous process with milestones and deadlines, and a reachable, juicy carrot at the end. It created some very healthy competition among the five participating countries. When Albania and Bosnia realised last summer that they were lagging behind their neighbours, they redoubled their efforts.

There are lessons here that can be used for the wider Balkan enlargement process. Treating all countries alike in a single process, but rewarding them for their objective performance in a strict, but fair fashion, is the best way to foster national efforts to meet the demanding accession criteria. Transparent, merit-based competition works wonders, even in the Balkans. This is the kind of Balkan rivalry that citizens of the region – and across Europe - can benefit from. In fact, there cannot be enough of it.

Gerald Knaus is the Chairman, and Alexandra Stiglmayer a Senior Analyst, of the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank that has closely followed the visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans. More information can be found here.

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