The EU and the Western Balkans: visa, asylum and immigration

2 December 2005

Franco Frattini, European Commission Vice-President responsible for Justice, Freedom and Security, addressed a Dialogue held jointly by the European Policy Centre, the King Baudouin Foundation and the Conflict Prevention Partnership on The EU and the Western Balkans: Visa, Asylum and Immigration. This was followed by a panel discussion with HE Lidija Topic, Head of the Bosnia Herzegovina Mission to the EU; Udo Janz, Deputy Director of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR); Heather Grabbe, from the cabinet of Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn; Godi Zeurcher, Director General of the International Centre for Migration Policy Development; and Nicholas Whyte, Europe Programme Director of the International Crisis Group. Antonio Missiroli, EPC Chief Policy Analyst, chaired the event. A question and answer session followed. This is not an official record of the proceedings, and specific remarks are not necessarily attributable.

Franco Frattini was speaking the day after the International Crisis Group published a report pointing out that the EU’s current visa regime for the Western Balkan states - Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia-Montenegro, including Kosovo - was fostering resentment, hampering progress on trade, education and more open societies, and thus harming regional stability.

But Mr. Frattini was adamant that there could be no compromise on the security of existing EU citizens and it was necessary to create the necessary functioning legal instruments before liberalising the visa regime.

The Commission was committed to advancing economic migration from the Western Balkans, creating opportunities for students, professors, researchers, and businessman to come and work in the Union. But improving EU access for any third-country nationals could only be conducted under clearly defined, transparent conditions - and in the case of the citizens of the Western Balkans, it was not in the cards for the moment.

Instead, the focus should now be on improving the issuing procedures for short-term visas. Visa facilitation agreements were in any case a totally new instrument in fostering closer ties, first used in relations with Russia and helping to secure a readmission accord with Moscow. This in turn was part of an historic deal through which Russia became a big strategic partner for the EU.

Only last week, talks opened with another key partner, Ukraine, and the task now was to identify the main elements to be taken into account before deciding whether to open negotiations with third countries on visa facilitation.

Any visa liberalisation should be coupled with readmission agreements - but the existence of such agreements did not automatically lead to the start of talks on visa liberalisation.

Easing visa applications

The Commissioner said that among the initiatives he would bring forward during 2006 were plans for visa facilitation accords aimed at improving short-term visas for Western Balkans citizens. He intended to raise the issue at his first meeting with the incoming Austrian EU Presidency on 9 January, and would work on the basis of a "road map" based on a state-by-state evaluation of each of the countries in the Western Balkan region.

Working in close cooperation with Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, Mr. Frattini said he would focus on opening up access for diplomats, public officials, researchers, students and businessmen - and that involved putting in place mechanisms to weed out the limited numbers involved in crime from the majority of honest citizens.

Tackling human trafficking

There were specific problems with organised crime and the trafficking in human beings through the Western Balkans countries into the EU, and this was a clear challenge directly linked to visa liberalisation. Mr. Frattini expressed particular concern about the "tragic and terrible" trafficking of about 500.000 women and children each year through the Western Balkans.

He acknowledged that much had already been done to counter this, but said more needed to be done by the justice and interior ministers of the Western Balkans. On the EU side, an "acquis" was evolving on asylum and migration - one of the fastest-growing chapters of EU legislation - and the Western Balkan countries would have to comply with this on the way to EU membership.

The Commission therefore wanted to see better development of institutions in the region to manage migration, combat trafficking and protect asylum seekers. It would not be easy - even some current Member States were having problems keeping up with the pace in this fast-moving policy area, where citizens were demanding European-level action. But success was vital to prepare countries for EU partnership.

All of the Commission’s requirements were set out in a Communication in October, which formed the basis of an "action plan" that would need to be adopted by EU interior ministers to tackle a growing problem which required an international approach.

Panel Discussion

A panel discussion followed, in which all the panellists welcomed the International Crisis Group report on EU Visas and the Western Balkans as a useful contribution.

Ambassador Lidija Topic questioned Mr Frattini’s assertion that opening up the EU visa regime would raise a new security threat for EU citizens: "We don’t see that we are a threat to European citizens - facilitating visa issues is very important and plans for individual road maps for each country are really going to help us."

Udo Janz said Mr Frattini had disappointed him by making it clear a full visa regime for the Western Balkans was not in the offing, except maybe for students. But Mr Janz welcomed the emphasis on combating the scourge of trafficking and called for more concentration on the victims, who were too often criminalised. In general there had been big steps in the right direction, but there was a need for much more.

Heather Grabbe said the Commission team was speaking with one voice on the visa issue, but added that Mr. Frattini’s pledge to bring forward the visa negotiating mandate in 2006 was a "big commitment" which would need the unanimous support of the 25 EU countries. However, particularly after the French riots and with a new government in Germany, there was not much appetite for a visa regime.

Godi Zeurcher said people had seen more visa restrictions than liberalisation in the last ten years, and striking the right balance was difficult. He questioned Mr. Frattini’s vision of visas as "a pre-entry control mechanism" and suggested this might not work as a strategy. Certainly the Commissioner was more optimistic than most immigration officials.

Nicholas Whyte said what was encouraging about Mr Frattini’s contribution was his clear sense that "the buck stops with him". Too often, the visa issue was pushed from ministry to ministry, but luckily times had changed. Nevertheless, the EU attitude towards the Western Balkans still seemed to be: "Make them EU citizens, but not just yet".

Mr Whyte wanted more recognition of the extent to which the current visa regime was a problem and not a solution - an EU system which, he said, rewarded traffickers and penalised honest travellers.

The EU had a particular obligation to liberalise the system and apply common consular standards, and the International Crisis Group was demanding more joined-up thinking from the international community.