Interview with Ivica Bocevski, Deputy Prime Minister of Macedonia in charge of EU integration, for ESI's White List Project, 19 March 2009
"Schengen and the Balkans: Europe, tear down this wall!"
1. When do you expect that Macedonian citizens will travel without a visa to the EU?
As soon as possible. The time has come to abolish the artificial wall that separates the Republic of Macedonia from the European Union. However, we are aware of the EU procedures necessary to reach a final decision on visa liberalisation. We are calling for a decision to be made as soon as possible. We strongly believe that on the morning of 1 January 2010, Macedonian citizens will wake up in a Europe where they can travel without obstacles. This would mean a tremendous step forward on the path to uniting the citizens of Europe, as once envisaged by the bold and brave fathers of the Union.
2. Do you expect that EU member states will lift the visa obligation for all countries that have met the visa roadmap conditions at the end of April?
Once countries meet the the roadmap on Visa Liberalisation benchmarks, the EU should do its part through proper evaluation, in line with the merit-based approach – so as to recommend visa free travel for countries that have met the criteria. We are aware that not all countries are performing at the same level – which is why the the Union and its member states should maintain a merit-based approach. I strongly believe that the Union and its member states should abolish the Schengen wall for all countries that meet the relevant conditions – the sooner the better.
3. What could be possible reasons for such a decision not to be taken this April for Macedonia?
I cannot think of such a possibility. At this point, I cannot name any reason why the Union would not adopt a decision on visa liberalisation with the Republic of Macedonia. The current visa regime fails to reflect the level of cooperation between the Republic of Macedonia and the European Union. We are a candidate for EU membership; contacts between Macedonian citizens and the citizens of the EU are even greater, therefore. The visa regime only impedes further progress in relations between our country and the Union. Today, while you need only four hours to register a company and two hours to reach the EU border, our citizens need at least 4 days to obtain a Schengen visa. This is an unacceptable situation.
4. When you meet a Minister of Interior of an influential EU country who is not convinced that the process of moving Macedonia onto the white list should start this year; what do you tell this Minister, how do you try to convince him or her?
Our strongest argument is the progress made in every area of the roadmap. Since we are participating in the dialogue on visa liberalisation, the ministries involved in the process present the Macedonian case at every bilateral and multilateral meeting with representatives from the Union and the member states. Our European counterparts are noting our progress and encouraging us to produce further results. In addition to the arguments provided on the reform process, we are loudly saying that the Schengen wall is not suitable for an EU candidate country – free movement across Europe is something that is of high value for the society, especially for our young people. We are glad that we've received support from every corner of Europe, in particular from the German Minister of Interior, the French State Secretary on EU Affairs, Spanish officials, the British Minister of Europe, and so on. I am certain that our message is well received and understood by our partners and friends in Europe.
5. Sceptics in the EU say that organised crime is out of control in the Western Balkans, and that many of the institutions and laws exist only on paper. Are they right?
The expert mission conducted by the European Commission in the area of organised crime and corruption (in the framework of the visa liberalisation dialogue) clearly showed the progress made in our region. This time, the arguments are on our side and the EU should be well aware of it. The Schengen barrier only strengthened the power of the Balkan autocrats and this process adversely affected the consolidation of democracy and civil society in the whole region. European integration and visa free travel is the only hope for the democratic forces in the region. Some sceptics, at the beginning of the 90's, argued that the Western Balkans is a troublesome region producing crime and illegal immigration, justifying our citizens' exclusion from the Schengen zone. This assumption led to 20 years of isolation, preventing young people and students from being part of the common European space of ideas and development. There is no space for scepticism when it comes to the visa liberalisation.
6. How about fears of illegal migration from Western Balkan to EU countries?
Allow me to clearly state that the current EU visa regime does not block out criminals, but common people, including students, businessmen, and researchers, all having to face humiliating procedures in front of the consulates in the early morning. We are in favour of imposing even the strictest conditions regarding migration policy and the acquiring of work permits. We are doing all of this to allow our citizens to meet Europe, to experience Europe, and to develop ties with Europe. Using the language of numbers, the last assessment by the State Department notes the progress made in the fight against human trafficking and illegal migration. The EC assessment on readmission with the Republic of Macedonia is positive, without any reservations. Moreover, Macedonia – a country of 2 million citizens – is not a threat, by any means, to the security and the migration policy of the Union. In addition, Macedonia is at the bottom of the list of states with asylum seekers.
7. The most recent EU commission assessments put Macedonia ahead of the other Western Balkan countries in implementing the visa roadmap requirements. Why is this so? When did Macedonia start implementing the EU Justice and Home Affairs acquis?
Macedonian society and this generation of Macedonian politicians are firmly determined to anchor the country in the EU. As I already mentioned, our determination to provide no new arguments for further delay in the visa liberalisation process made us approach this issue seriously. When we are faced with clear benchmarks, specific deadlines and measures that are to be implemented, we always over-perform. Our efforts on visa liberalisation demonstrated the country's reform capacity and determination. In addition to fulfilling of the roadmap requirements, our government adopted a Decision on Drafting the First National Schengen Action Plan. In doing so, we want to send a clear message to the Union: we are committed, Macedonia is a serious partner, and we are ready to help foster a common European future.
8 . How hard has it been to meet all the visa road map requirements? How expensive? Which requirements are most difficult to meet?
The roadmap requirements, aside from some policy benchmarks, include quite a high number of costly technical requirements. When a candidate country is trying to meet EU standards, the process requires solid planning and continuous funding over several years; and I am certain that the Commission bears this in mind. Let me mention some statistics. Macedonian citizens are spending EUR 5 million per year on obtaining visas for Europe (excluding the most issued visa, the Greek one). Establishing a National Integrated Database for Crime Intelligence, meanwhile, costs EUR 7.5 million – and it is only one of several benchmarks requiring such an allocation. You get my point! Yet the fundamental principle of free movement for our citizens is worth all these efforts.
9. Do you believe that the Commission and the EU member states will make an objective assessment of the implementation record?
We believe that the Commission will provide a balanced and objective assessment. The expert missions in the country were a success. We provided all the material in advance, held regular consultation meetings, provided outstanding organisation of all the required events; we did our best in this regard. Moreover, we had a committed and reliable partner on the other side. We expect that the expert mission will confirm the preliminary report by the Commission on the significant progress made in the roadmap for visa liberalisation – and that it will recommend for the Council of the EU to lift the visa requirements for Macedonia.
10. What would be the impact of a further delay on the citizens in Macedonia?
Devastating! Our citizens waited for quite a long time for the Union to understand the unsustainability of its visa regime vis-à-vis Macedonia. The visa barrier is preventing contacts, impeding business, and fuelling xenophobia and radicalism, thus narrowing our citizens' horizons. An entire generation of young people has grown up without contact with their counterparts in Europe. 70% of young people in Macedonia have never visited an EU member state. Because their parents' generation experienced Europe without visa requirements, the current situation creates a catastrophic generational divide: these young people can easily fall pray to populism, demagogy and xenophobia. Faced with calls for economic nationalism and protectionism, as well as widespread scepticism towards enlargement – the most successful policy of the Union – the EU has to answer with bolder, effective and more open leadership. It should revive the very foundation upon which Europe was built. The European idea should be kept vivid and dynamic – and every citizen in Europe should have the right to enjoy it without further delay. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!", Reagan told the Soviet leader in 1987, signalling the collapse of communism and the end of divisions in Europe. It is now my turn to use this line. Europe, tear down the Schengen wall for our citizens!