Newsletter 28/2013 - From Brussels angle
ARTICLE by Cecilia Malmstrom, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, European Commission
Western Balkans’ visa-free travellers in EU have obligations as well as rights
Announcing the decision to grant visa-free travel for the citizens of Western Balkans was for me a historical moment. I know how important this is for the people of the region and how hard they have worked to achieve it. Visa-free travel facilitates people to people contacts, enhances business opportunities and gives the possibility for the people of the region to get to know the European Union (EU) better. It is a cornerstone of the EU's integration policy and remains one of the core achievements for the Western Balkans.
The citizens of [the Former Yugoslav Republic of] Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have been enjoying visa-free travel to the Member States of the European Union since December 2009 and the citizens of Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina since December 2010. The decision to lift the visa obligation was based on a thorough assessment of these countries’ progress in fulfilling the requirements of their visa liberalisation roadmaps in areas including document security, border and migration management, asylum, to name but a few. This is the result of intensive and hard work by both the authorities and the people of these countries to meet these conditions and I congratulate them for the great efforts they have made. We also have an on-going visa dialogue with Kosovo* and I hope that this remaining country in the Western Balkans will soon also be able to enjoy the freedom of visa-free travel to the EU.
However, a visa-free regime also comes with responsibilities both for the governments and the people benefiting from this freedom. We need to prevent the misuse of any visa-free regime for purposes other than the intended short-term travel to the EU. However, since lifting the visa requirements certain EU Member States have been confronted with waves of unfounded asylum applications lodged by the nationals of the visa-exempted Western Balkan countries. These applications are most often due to economic difficulties, unemployment and lack of access to health care, amongst others.
In order to prevent this occurrence, we have a monitoring mechanism in place, which provides the necessary tools to monitor both the continuous implementation of benchmarks by the Western Balkan countries and the migration flows between these countries and the EU. To this end, it is very important for the Western Balkans to cooperate closely with the Commission and concerned Member States to counteract this phenomenon.
In addition, this week, the European Parliament adopted our new visa waiver suspension mechanism, expected to enter into force by the end of the year, once the Council has given its formal approval. Member States will in the future be able to request the suspension of the visa waiver for third-country nationals if they experience an emergency situation caused by the abuse of the visa-free regime by nationals exempted from the obligation. This is however a last resort measure and should only be used in exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless, specific conditions should be met, such as a substantial and sudden increase in irregular stays and unfounded asylum applications. It is also important to stress that triggering this mechanism will not automatically lead to the suspension of the visa waiver and the Commission will first have to assess the fulfilment of the conditions. But if the request is justified, the Commission can now propose to temporarily suspend, for a period of 6 months, the visa exemption for the citizens of the concerned third country.
I am, and have always been, strongly committed to upholding the visa liberalisation process so that citizens of the Western Balkans can benefit from the advantages of this historical opportunity, and I wish to highlight that the majority of travellers from the Western Balkans do respect the requirements and the responsibilities that follows. However, in order to preserve this opportunity, it is crucial for the visa-exempted countries to continue to fight the negative developments that threaten an otherwise successful achievement.
In order to assist the Western Balkan countries in maintaining the integrity of the visa-free regime, the Commission has set out recommendations, which range from stepping up operational cooperation and information sharing with Member States and is organising information campaigns to inform travellers of their rights and obligations under the visa-free regime. Together we need to ensure that our common visa policy remains a trusted component of an efficient European migration policy.
Cecilia Malmstrom has been the European Commissioner responsible for Home Affairs including EU work on police cooperation, border control, asylum and migration since February 2010. Before becoming the Commissioner, amongst her many duties, Malmstrom was Minister for EU Affairs in the Swedish Government (2006-2010), Member of the European Parliament (from 1999 and re-elected in 2004), serving in Committees on Foreign Affairs, Constitutional Affairs, the Internal Market and Consumer Protection and also on the subcommittees for Human Rights and Security & Defence, and as Vice Chair of the Parliament's delegations to Hungary and Croatia. Commissioner Malmstrom is author of a number of books and articles on European regionalism, European politics, Spanish politics, terrorism and immigration. She holds PhD in political science from Gothenburg University.
* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence