A wall is coming down at last

The importance of visa free travel for the people of the Balkans has been a constant theme of our work for years. It also runs like a red thread through all the films of our Balkan series Return to Europe.

Return to Europe trailer. © 2007 pre tv. All rights reserved.

The motto of the first trailer of the series is "No Balkan Ghetto – It depends on us!" In the film on Albania, young activists destroy a symbolic Schengen Wall. The film on Bosnia concludes with citizens waiting in the rain outside the Austrian embassy in Sarajevo and with a young musician venting his anger: "Only Europe knows why this is this way."

In 2007, no one knew how much longer he would have to queue up for a visa. Photo: pre tv

Well, it is no longer this way. In December 2009 Serb, Montenegrin and Macedonian citizens were able to travel visa free to the EU. And following a decision by the EU in November 2010 the same will very soon be possible for citizens of Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

What made this transformation possible? Why did the EU and its member states decide to allow visa free access now when they had so long resisted such calls previously? And why did this happen at a time of deep economic crisis across Europe (2009 being the worst year on record for decades), and in a year of elections in key EU member states, such as Germany?

The ultimate motivation for this breakthrough was not a matter of compassion or political morality in EU capitals. There had, after all, been a moral case for letting Bosnian citizens travel to the EU without a visa already in 1995 (citizens of neighbouring Croatia never needed one)! There was a moral case for Kosovars, having survived a decade of apartheid, to travel visa-free at least since 1999. Or for Serbs, having toppled Milosevic in 2000. Or for Macedonians, having implemented the Ohrid Agreement and having created a multiethnic society, at least since 2002.

However, arguing for visa-free travel based on political morality convinced only those already convinced. More than a decade of such arguments did not deliver results. The wall stood.

"How visa-free travel makes Europe safer" … meeting with former interior ministers
Giuliano Amato (Italy) and Otto Schily (Germany) in July 2009 in Istanbul
to discuss the ESI White List Project. Photo: ESI

Then something changed: the logic of the debate.

Two year ago some focused on the security advantages to the EU of getting rid of the visa requirements. Giuliano Amato, long-time interior minister of Italy, made the argument at an ESI meeting in early 2009: rather than imposing visa requirements, he said, EU interior ministers would prefer having better functioning police cooperation. This requires reforms in local law enforcement: meeting the conditions of the EU roadmaps.

The new logic was "strict but fair": the EU offers the region a deal with strict conditions; the region responds; and the result is a win-win alliance to improve security and mobility.

It has worked extremely well. Within 2 years only the visa roadmap process turned into a powerful demonstration of undiminished European soft power.

This new website section aims to understand the lessons of this development. There are lessons here for the EU and for its neighbours; for Kosovo and for Turkey; for Moldova and for Ukraine; and even, as we will aim to explore, potentially for the US and for Mexico.

So let us know if you have comments or suggestions; recommendations for things to include on these pages or questions to raise. If you do write to us on feedback@esiweb.org.  Let us jointly explore the true meaning and potential of Europe's border evolution.

Kind regards,

Gerald Knaus and Alexandra Stiglmayer
Gerald Knaus

Gerald Knaus,
Chairman of ESI

Alexandra Stiglmayer

Alexandra Stiglmayer,
Director "ESI Schengen White List Project"

Back to main page