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ECAS calls for visa liberalisation in the Western Balkans in a “Europe without barriers”


07 Jan 2009


Social Europe & Jobs
EU Priorities 2020

1. ECAS subscribes to the motto of the Czech Presidency of the EU "Europe without barriers" . ECAS has consistently contested the need for restrictions imposed on the free movement of workers from new member states in the EU , and therefore welcomes the Presidency commitment to highlight the adverse impacts of existing transitional measures and the advantages of enlargement 5 years on.

But there are also more hidden barriers and a real gap between the Treaty rules, the case law of the Court and legislation which stress free movement and European citizenship and what actually happens on the ground. Therefore an "E" for enforcement should be added as a fourth to the other 3 "E"s in the Presidency programme.

2. Within the wider European neighbourhood, ECAS believes that "Europe without borders" should include the Western Balkans. The Czech Presidency should be a step in the right direction with its focus on strengthening civil society and people-to-people contacts, as well as supporting the road maps on visa liberalisation. Enforcement is clearly an issue here too as shown by the hotlines and survey done by ECAS and partner NGO's in the Western Balkans of the visa facilitation agreements. 

As a contribution on this second objective, ECAS is today publishing the report  of a conference held on 10 December 2008 on the visa facilitation agreements . The debate showed that there is a real divergence between those responsible for drawing up the agreements and NGO's monitoring them on the ground. The background to this debate was a hotline launched by ECAS and partners on the same day across the Western Balkans (Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro) gathering complaints and observations from the public about visa facilitation combined with a more scientific survey of people as they emerged from consulates . Both projects showed that visa liberalisation although creating high expectations has made little difference so far. The main reason is that since only some barriers are reduced, the public does not see

the benefits especially when member states fail to enforce not just the letter but also the spirit of visa facilitation on their consulates. Visa facilitation agreements cover only a limited range of barriers to obtaining a visa:

o    The agreements do not change the relationship between the consular administration and the citizen. Many who contacted the hotline or participated in the survey complained about being treated in an undignified way. However, the politeness of officials, training and language skills, opening hours or avoiding queues just to get an application form are not covered. These are the issues of most concern to citizens;
o    Similarly the agreements provide for a reduction to 35 euro and that visas should be processed within 10 days. However these advantages may be offset by the greater additional costs and delays it can take before the processing stage is reached - i.e. the costs of travel, waiting on the phone at a call centre and the days, even weeks, delay involved in arranging for an appointment
o    The overall advantages visa facilitation should bring have been lost sight of because of lack of information especially from the governments and also the very diverse ways they are applied or not by member states' consulates.
In addition, the debate underlined that the European Commission needs to adopt a more transparent policy in regard to visa policy and regularly inform the citizens and the NGOs working on visa liberalization on the latest developments. In that way civil society can become an ally of the EC and exert pressure on the governments to accomplish the necessary reforms set in the road maps.

Furthermore, the European Institutions and Members States need to take stock of the studies accomplished by local NGOs and International Organisations that are all showing real progress of the region in terms of crime rates and which greatly minimize the negative consequences of labour migration from Western Balkans. Until this is done, the debate will not go beyond the common myths and prejudices which are sometimes held in the EU.

The EU has set its own principles and conditions for visa liberalisation in the form of road maps. Some criteria defined in the roadmaps towards visa free regime that the countries received from the Commission are technical and clearly defined (such as those on document security and issuing machine readable biometric travel documents), however others (such as those defined under the public order and security bloc and especially the “fight against organized crime” criteria) are broad and will be very difficult to prove. Ultimately, the decision about the visa free regime is a political one.

"Europe without barriers" is therefore no light slogan. Fortunately, over the period of the hotline and survey, visa facilitation has come to be seen less as an end in itself and more as a step towards doing away with visas altogether for countries whose future ultimately lies in the EU.

For further information please contact:

Tony Venables                     Kenan Hadzimusic
Director                         Project Manager
ECAS – European Citizen Action Service     ECAS - European Citizen Action
Tel: +32 (0) 2 548 04 98     Service
E-mail:                 Tel: +32 (0) 2 548 04 93