Visa liberalisation in the Balkans: time for the breakthrough

19 November 2009

Rosa Balfour, EPC Senior Policy Analyst said the Balkan Gallup Monitor says 90% of citizens in the region consider free travel the key advantage of getting closer to the EU.

Alexandra Stiglmayer, Director of European Stability Initiative’s Schengen White List Project, said the EU talks about the European future for the Western Balkans, but makes it difficult for citizens to enter the EU.

The ESI welcomed the visa liberalisation process in January 2008, and pushed for it to be more transparent. Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia should be granted visa-free travel from 19 December 2009, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina sometime next year, and Kosovo will open a dialogue on the issue as its legal status is unclear.  

Visa liberalisation has reignited support and enthusiasm for the EU in the region and made citizens feel they are welcome, and is EU conditionality ‘in action.

Ana Vukadinovic, Adviser to the Prime Minister of Montenegro, said Montenegrin citizens cannot travel far with their current passports, so welcome visa liberalisation. Montenegro is working to become an EU member and the reforms demended will also strengthen the democratic process, make insitutions function effectively and develop into a well-functioning market economy. The country has designed a detailed national integration programme for 2008-2012 to prepare it for membership, is strengthening its administrative capacities, and introduced reforms to fight organised crime and corruption and strengthened the judiciary.

Samir Rizvo, Assistant Minister, Ministry of Security, Bosnia and Herzegovina, said the ‘roadmap’ for reforms was demanding because of the country’s complex internal structure and decision-making process.

The reforms on migration and asylum were particularly difficult as the country had no previous border or customs facilities or experience of migration and asylum. However, it has met most of the benchmarks and is bringing its legislation in line with European standards. It is fighting organised crime, drugs, corruption, money laundering, protecting minorities and implementing a Roma strategy.  

Fisnik Rexhepi, Senior Advisor to the Minister of the Interior, Kosovo, described Kosovo’s recent political background, and said the Thessaloniki Summit agreed the Republic of Kosovo had a “European perspective”.

Kosovo is committed to fulfill all the accession criteria, as European integration is an absolute priority. “All we ask for is to give us the chance and treat us like the other countries of the Western Balkans.”

Kosovo should be included in visa liberalisation process because it is a democratic, multi-ethnic and secular republic. Unfortunately five EU countries do not recognise its independence, which prevent it strengthening relations with the EU. “We have no other future except European integration”.

Luigi Soreca, Head of Unit, External Relations and Enlargement, DG Justice, Freedom and Security, European Commission, stressed that the visa liberalisation process was a real precedent in that the European Commission, the Member States and the countries concerned worked closely together. The countries involved carried out an impressive reform record in a relatively short period of time in some important sectors.

The biggest challenge is to ensure the reforms are fully implemented so that the next accession phase runs smoothly. The visa liberalisation process is a success story.