Western Balkans getting visable

Friday, 17. July 2009     0 comment(s)
Georg Boldt
Administrative Assistant

The European Commission adopted a proposal to grant visa-free access to and travel within the Schengen area for citizens of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. The decision was taken on the 15th of July, and still needs to be ratified by the Council of the European Union, following consultations with the European Parliament. If the proposal is carried, isolation of the citizens of the three former constituent republics of federal Yugoslavia will finally come to an end.

Unless the commission proposal meets opposition from individual states the new rules will come into effect on the first of January next year. Citizens in Belgrade, Podgorica and Skopje will have a good reason to celebrate. They know that contrary to popular belief, the current visa regime is hardly restricting the movement of criminals. However, the insular lives of 11 million Europeans will change remarkably. Albums filled with yellowing holiday pictures serve as a nostalgic reminder of days when the Yugoslavian passport was a veritable passepartout. Conversely, today an estimated 70% of Serbian students have never been abroad. With only 400km to Budapest, 660km to Vienna and 800km to Venice from Belgrade the effect of the humiliating travel restrictions become quite clear.

Opening the gates of the European Union will signify enormous opportunities for people on both sides of the divide. Increased respect for human diversity, a deeper understanding of European common cultural heritage, educational and professional exchange as well as business opportunities are only a few examples of what we stand the chance to gain.

Unfortunately, free movement of people from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo will still be policed by consular employees. In effect, Serbs in Kosovo and Republica Srpska, one of the political territories of Bosnia-Herzegovina, will still be able to apply for Serbian passports. Likewise, Croatians living in Bosnia-Herzegovina already have access to most of Europe.

"It is our goal, and our firm conviction, that Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina will follow suit soon./…/ If all the conditions are fulfilled, the Commission could envisage making a new proposal, which would include them, by mid-2010", said enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn.

Inclusion on the so-called Schengen white list, a necessity for visa free travel within most of the European Union member states, is limited to countries fulfilling a number of criteria. Countries are benchmarked for “document security”, “illegal migration and readmission”, “public order and security” and “external relations and fundamental rights”. If and when the commission proposal comes into effect 6.5 million ethnic Albanians and Bosniaks will be the real losers. Schengen regulations will effectively restrict free travel of these mainly Muslim groups and increasing accusations of structural racism and islamophobia are to be expected.

Next year Europe will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights. Hopefully that will also be a year marked with swift and far reaching visa liberalisation.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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