Is the EU visa proposal anti-Muslim?

Let me first say that ESI welcomes the recent Commission proposal on visa free travel to the Balkans. Considering what expectations of progress were only 12 months ago – looking forward to a year with EU Parliamentary and German parliamentary elections, against a background of enlargement fatigue and a deepening economic crisis – this proposal is a very positive signal for the whole Balkan region.

We wrote an article on this, which you find here. The article also appeared as a commentary on BIRN.

We have a serious concern about the implications of this proposal for Kosovo. But this is not due to shortcomings in the Commission-led effort: it is rather that Kosovo is excluded from the meritocratic roadmap process. We also have one suggestion to improve the proposal for Bosnia and Albania. But much of the criticism made of the Commission proposal in the past week does not appear fair to us.

Ok, you might say, but what about the most important criticism one could hear in institutions such as the European Parliament: that the European Commission proposal on visa free travel, which was announced this week, is anti-Muslim?

A good friend and expert on the Balkans sent me the following email and question:

“I have been approached by Muslim friends from Britain, Germany and Turkey asking me whether the Commission has understood that the exclusion of BiH and Albania is sending out a negative signal to Muslim communities around Europe and beyond. Furthermore in the case of BiH where Orthodox and Catholic inhabitants have an option of joint citizenship with Serbia and Croatia, Serbs and Croats from BiH will be able to travel freely using their Serb and Croat passports while Bosniak Muslims will not. Has this rather urgent political issue been considered either by you or by the Commission?”

It is a serious question, and we have discussed it a lot inside ESI. So let me share with you the email I sent him in response:

” Yes, this issue has been considered. Anticipating these debates, we looked in great detail at every one of the five countries, producing a one page score card and a very much longer analysis of each of the conditions that still have to be met based on studying all Commission documents and expert reports.

All of these can be found here:

Concerning Bosnia, look in particular at:

Now compare these to the one page report and detailed analysis of Macedonia, and it is obvious that there is a difference.

In addition, the Commission has recently outlined itself the precise conditions that Bosnia and Albania still have to meet, sending a detailed letter to the Bosnian Ministry of Security.

In short, considering that meeting the benchmark conditions is the only criteria for visa free travel, the Commission has made the right decisions so far. Bosnia was the last (!) country to introduce biometric passports, for instance, something that was due to sheer incompetence and lack of focus. You could argue that this should not be a criteria (and Bulgaria was given visa free travel in 2001 without having biometric passports), but this is changing the rules of the game while the game is being played. This never works in the EU.

Thus, what critics of the Commission proposal for Bosnia are doing is not in fact arguing with these facts. They want to change the terms of the debate.

Critics argue that that there is a strong moral case for Bosnia to be granted visa free travel. The gist of this argument is a rhetorical question: “How can Mladic travel to the EU with his Serbian passport, but the relatives of his Srebrenica victims cannot?”

Critics also argue that this decision is inherently anti-Bosniak, as Croats and Serbs in Bosnia can circumvent the problems with the Bosnian passport by applying for Croat and Serb passports. This is of course not a new problem at all (in the case of Croatia it was always true).

I personally have a lot of sympathy for this argument (although I hope that Mladic tries out his new Serbian passport soon and ends up in The Hague as a result).

But this is an argument to give Bosnians visa free travel already in 1995! The fact that we are now talking about 2010 shows that it has not worked too well until now.

In fact, purely moral arguments for visa free travel have never impressed sceptical Europeans, only already convinced friends of the Balkans. This is, after all, not a new debate. Moral arguments have been made many times in recent years. They have been made for Serbia (after courageous young people toppled Milosevic, did they not deserve visa free travel?), for Kosovo (there was a decade of apartheid, followed by mass murder and massive expulsions in 1999: how does Kosovo deserve to be the most isolated country in the world today?), for Macedonia (having implemented the Ohrid Peace Agreement and been granted EU candidate status in 2005, did the Macedonians not deserve visa free travel at least as much as Romanians did in 2001), etc …

Moral arguments are important, but they are not sufficient. This we have learned in the past 15 years.

What brought about this week’s breakthrough, however, was the fact that the terms of debate changed recently: that the logic of the process became the slogan of our campaign “strict but fair”. Conditionality turned out to be the best friend of the region!

The argument for the roadmap process is not one of political morality. It was from the outset based on a very rational argument: that it actually IS in the EU’s security interest not to have to rely on visa, but to be able to cooperate with Balkan countries that have implemented the very demanding set of reforms described in the roadmaps. This makes everyone safer. Granting visa free travel is not a gift to a long-suffering region, but a win-win situation for all Europeans.


“How visa-free travel makes Europe safer” … meeting with former interior ministers Giuliano Amato (Italy) and Otto Schily (Germany) this week in Istanbul to discuss the ESI White List Project

We strongly supported this logic, because we felt that it would work. We were also convinced that leaders in these countries were capable of surprising the EU and actually implementing these demands faster than anticipated. And this is indeed what has happened.

Even Bosnia is today much closer to visa free travel than it has ever been in the years since 1995.

Of course, there is always a danger that despite a process of objective assessment (with numerous expert missions visiting the region in recent months) political considerations would enter at the end; that prejudices could cloud the process.

Contrary to what most friends of Bosnia in Europe believe, however, allowing a bigger role for purely political considerations would likely be harmful not beneficial for Bosnia, given its terrible image in some EU countries and the regular recurrence of articles on dangerous islamists in Sarajevo (again earlier this year in Der Spiegel, an article on “the fifth column of the prophet”). We have long warned that this image, which is not deserved, as well as regular alarmist articles that Bosnia might be about to go to war again are doing terrible damage to the European future of the country. But one effect of this bad press is that the less European decisions are based on perceptions, and the more on facts, the better for Bosnia.

Thus, I believe that the principle of “strict but fair” is also in Bosnia’s (and Albania’s) interest. Both countries have an image problem in Europe that can best be overcome by focusing on concrete deliverables.

At the same time, Bosnian leaders need to be told by their friends that if Macedonian Albanians and Macedonians could implement these changes following their fighting in 2001, so must they. Until now at least there is no evidence that this is not actually in their hands.

There are two potential challenges to “strict but fair”:

  1. Some claim that EU leaders do indeed have prejudices about Balkan Muslims, and that even once Bosnia fulfills all conditions it will be judged more harshly than Serbia or Montenegro are now.Until now, at least, we have found no evidence that this is the case.It is a strong argument, however, for making the assessment process as transparent as possible, which is the main motivation behind our dedicated website. We believe that full transparency is in the interest of everyone, which is why you can find all relevant documents there.
  2. Some people in Sarajevo claim that Bosnian Serb politicians might sabotage the reforms needed for Bosnian passport holder, to undermine the Bosnian state, since Bosnian Serbs might in any case gain access to the EU through their Serbian citizenship.This is definitely something that needs to be monitored. Until now we have found little evidence for this. In fact, once we published the visa score card showing Bosnia in last position a few weeks ago a series of laws were passed that suggested that Bosnian politicians were sensitive to the charge of letting their people down.It is also the case that the EU would not look kindly at a sudden increase in Serbian biometric passports being handed out to Bosnian Serbs.

In short, for now the best message to give to Bosnian leaders is not to lean back and hope that Europe’s bad conscience about Srebrenica will do their work, but to sit down and focus on the roadmap. The EU should help, monitor the process closely, and respond fairly.

This has also been our answer to questions by Bosnian media in recent days:

“Yes, you have a moral case, but this is unlikely to convince sceptical interior ministers in sceptical EU member states. Dont’ rely on it. In fact, the example of Macedonia and Montenegro shows you that implementing these reforms will lead to the desired goal much faster than any campaign based on the history of a war that ended in 1995. As for anti-Bosniak prejudice, so far we have not found evidence of it in the Commission evaluations. Lets be vigilant, but lets admit also that so far the Commission has been fair according to the standards of the roadmap process.”

In fact, we feel, looking in detail at all the still outstanding conditions, that if a real effort is made, Bosnia and Albania might be able to meet these conditions within the next 12 months. That would obviously be best for everyone. All our efforts should now go towards making this possible.

This is why our protest focuses on the specific commission recommendations concerning Kosovo: Kosovo is not even being offered the chance that Bosnia and Albania have to prove that it can or cannot implement the roadmap requirements. This is the opposite of “strict but fair” … a lose-lose situation for the whole region and the EU.”

Further reading:

Inside the ESI visa campaign – an update


A few months ago a small group of us – Kristof Bender, Alex Stiglmayer, Nick Wood as well as ESI advisory board members Heather Grabbe, Radmila Sekerinska and Giuliano Amato – met in Rome to discuss what contribution ESI could make to the ongoing policy debate on visa issues in the EU concerning the Western Balkans.

One outcome of this meeting was a declaration. Another, very subjective, outcome was vastly increased confidence on our part that this time around, in 2009, there was a real chance to actually achieve something when it comes to bringing down the Schengen Wall between the EU and the Western Balkans.


When, at the end of the day, Kristof, Alex and I sat in a cafe in Rome, looking forward to the work of the coming months, we were excited: now, thanks to the efforts by some EU member states and the European Commission, there was a clear road forward for governments of the Balkans. As long as enough people in the region would learn about what their governments needed to do – and as long as decision makers in the EU would be kept informed about what has and has not been done so far in the region – there was now every chance for new energy and real progress.

The key, we felt, was to take conditionality seriously: as something that binds both the countries of the region and the EU. This was a major inspiration: there was a road, and there was an attractive goal.

Brainstorming on EU visa conditionality

Since then we have tried to make our contribution, with the tools of a think tank.

We published analyses. We gave presentations. We produced a glossary to allow as many people as possible to take part in an informed debate. We put documents online which are crucial for any fair evaluation of what has been done so far (taking seriously the idea that the best guarantee of government performance – in the Balkans as elsewhere – is informed public scrutiny). We briefed policy makers in the Balkans when we learned new things. We met with sceptical decision makers in EU capitals.

There was obviously interest. In recent weeks we sometimes had more than 4000 individual visitors a day to our website.

Giuliano Amato, chairman of the ESI White List Project Advisory Board

Later this month (June) we will meet with our team of regional analysts who have worked with us on this project in Istanbul to discuss the next steps: one of the major arguments in favour of Istanbul is, of course, that because Turkey has had one of the most liberal entry policies it is simply easier for people from across the region to come here.

Later in July we will meet again with the White List Project advisory board in Istanbul. This advisory board now includes two former EU interior ministers: in addition to Giuliano Amato it has also been joined by former German interior minister Otto Schily.

So far everything remains in the air. Nothing has yet been decided by the EU. There is, as of this morning, not even an informal proposal from the Commission – based on its recent assessments – on how to proceed.

For this reason Alex and I sent the following letter last night to a few hundred people working on visa issues, in the European Commission, in EU member states, in the European Parliament:

The Balkans and the Schengen White List – proposal for the way forward

Dear Mrs X,

In the coming weeks and months, the European Commission and the EU member states will decide which Western Balkan countries qualify for the lifting of the Schengen visa requirement. The EU’s decision has the potential to restore the EU’s credibility and its soft power in the region. It can also balance the hopes of the people in the Balkans with the concerns of those responsible for protecting the Schengen area against illegal migration and organised crime.

On the one hand, there are great expectations on the part of the governments and the citizens of the Western Balkan countries. The visa requirement has been a matter of frustration, contributing to doubts as to whether the Western Balkans’ European perspective is real. Now, however, renewed enthusiasm and hope have appeared.

On the other hand, EU governments have stressed the importance of reassuring sceptical EU citizens that they will exercise fair, but strict conditionality when it comes to abolishing the visa requirement on Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. The conditions were outlined in the EU visa roadmaps issued last year.

Based on what has been achieved so far (acceleration of reform efforts in the Western Balkans, numerous visits to the region by EU experts, and detailed analysis of progress by the European Commission), it is in fact possible to address both concerns – to be both strict and fair – at once.

We offer the following solution for your consideration:


The Commission assessments and expert reports leave no doubt that Macedonia has earned the right to visa-free travel as soon as possible, i.e. from January 2010 at the latest. Such a decision would send a powerful signal to the region that conditionality is taken seriously, and that reforms pay off.

Notwithstanding the upcoming European Parliament elections and a new Commission scheduled to take office in November, the EU institutions must make sure that a decision to amend Council Regulation 539/2001 is taken quickly.

For Macedonians to travel visa-free as of next January, the Commission must make the relevant legislative proposal within the next few weeks. The new European Parliament should then treat the dossier as a priority after the summer break, so that the Council can take the vote on it in the autumn.

Montenegro and Serbia

Montenegro and Serbia still have a few conditions to meet. However, as the Commission concludes, even in areas where the two countries have not yet achieved full implementation, “a large majority” or “the majority of the benchmarks” have been met.

Given that the Council will vote on visa-free travel in five months at the earliest (at the JHA Council of 23 October), possibly even later (at the last JHA Council of 2009 on 30 November/1 December), it is advisable for the Commission to include visa-free travel for Montenegro and Serbia in the forthcoming proposal, while making sure that this is conditional on further reforms.

The next five or more months are long enough to assess whether both countries are serious about meeting outstanding requirements. If doubts persist, the Council could invite the Commission to conduct a final assessment ahead of the vote.


The Commission and the member states must refrain from demanding that Serbia prevent residents of Kosovo from acquiring Serbian passports. One of the roadmap conditions for Serbia clearly states:

“Serbia should ensure full and effective access to travel and identity documents for all Serbian citizens including women, children, people with disabilities, people belonging to minorities and other vulnerable groups.”

As long as Serbian governments claim, and some EU member states accept, that Kosovars are Serbian citizens (regardless of ethnicity), any open or hidden discrimination will be a breach of the principle of non-discrimination.

The EU is justified in asking for security in the process, in particular as regards the civil registries and the breeder documents that are used. But Serbia must not make the process discriminatory. As long as the EU does not offer Kosovo a visa roadmap or another process leading towards visa-free travel, it implicitly accepts that Kosovars are Serbian citizens. This means Kosovars have a right to Serbian travel and identity documents.

Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina

Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina clearly have to do more work before they qualify for visa-free travel. Being strict is as essential to the success of this process as being fair.

The policy question now is how to ensure that both countries undertake the reforms already achieved in Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro.

It would be counter-productive to exclude them from the current process. Seeing Serbia move ahead of it could prove destabilising for Bosnia – most Bosnian Croats use Croatian passports, which allow visa-free travel, and an unknown number of Bosnian Serbs have acquired, or are in the process of acquiring, Serbian citizenship and Serbian passports. This would leave the Bosniaks as the only community that is subject to the visa requirement. The new Albanian government, which will emerge from the elections at the end of June, also needs a concrete prospect. For this reason it is advisable to offer both Bosnia and Albania a new timetable.

The best option would be to include the two countries in the forthcoming proposal to amend Council Regulation 539/2001 by moving them to the “white” Schengen list – but, in doing so, to stipulate that visa-free travel for Albania and Bosnia will remain pending until all conditions are met. The proposal should also include a specific date for a new assessment to be conducted by the Commission and EU national experts in early 2010.

The Council, at the same time, should continue to communicate clearly that it will take its decisions based on technical, not political, criteria – and that there will be no place in the process for discrimination or shortcuts.

It is already obvious that spelling out clear conditions has inspired reforms throughout the region that have made both the region and the EU safer. A Council decision that includes all five countries – taking note of their progress to date – will ensure that this process continues.

ESI is grateful to the Robert Bosch Stiftung for its support of the “ESI Schengen White List Project”.

Many best wishes,

Gerald Knaus

Gerald Knaus,
Chairperson of ESI

Alexandra Stiglmayer

Alexandra Stiglmayer,
Director “ESI Schengen White List Project”

Gerald Knaus and Alexandra Stiglmayer