By Gerald Knaus and Alexandra Stiglmayer
Is the EU edging closer to making a fundamental and strategic mistake by restoring the visa requirement for citizens of the Western Balkans?
At this moment the interior ministers of six EU countries - Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden - are pushing for a reversal of the most significant decision made in the past decade to further the European integration of the Western Balkans. The issue is also on the agenda of the justice and home affairs council on 25/26 October this week.
Such a decision would be a bad blow to the EU’s credibility in southeast Europe. It would also be deeply unfair to the citizens in the countries concerned. Reintroducing visa requirements for citizens of Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro or Bosnia would also signal that other countries with roadmaps or visa liberalisation talks - from Kosovo to Turkey to Moldova - stand no real chance of success.
How did the EU get to this point? What would be the implications of such a step for the EU and the region? And how can the EU solve its own legitimate concerns without reintroducing visas?
To answer these questions, one must first understand the nature of the acute crisis that is pushing (some) EU interior ministers to advocate such measures.
After the EU lifted the Schengen visa requirement for Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro in December 2009, thousands of Serbians and Macedonians travelled to the EU to submit asylum claims. Already by 2010, Serbia became the country with the third-largest number of claims - almost 18,000 - in the EU; citizens from small Macedonia alone filed 7,550 claims.
Although only three EU countries were affected - Germany, Sweden and Belgium, with Luxembourg becoming a fourth target in 2011 - almost immediately there were warnings that unless Balkan leaders find ways to “solve” the asylum problem, the EU might have to reverse its decision to allow Balkan citizens visa-free travel.
Since then the situation has deteriorated further. The case of Germany illustrates the dynamic. In 2010, citizens of Serbia and Macedonia made 10,300 asylum requests in Germany. In 2011 the number was 8,500. However, in September 2012 the number of Serbian and Macedonian citizens submitting asylum requests reached 4,000 in one month.
This was a record and the reaction in Germany was predictable. Bild, Germany's largest tabloid, picked up the issue. German interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich declared: “The massive inflow of Serbian and Macedonian nationals must be stopped without delay.” Friedrich told Bild Zeitung that “We have to send a clear signal to the relevant countries: people who are really persecuted will be accepted, economic refugees won't.”
In the first six months of this year, the recognition rate of claims in Germany was close to zero. Of some 5,000 asylum claims which were examined in this period, only 11 persons received humanitarian protection (which is not political asylum and is granted due to serious medical problems). Yet the number of applications continues to rise.
Why so many applications?
Why are Serbian and Macedonian citizens, who are not persecuted in their countries, applying for asylum in Germany despite the clear sign that they have little chance of getting asylum? The explanation is obvious. In July 2012, the German Constitutional Court ruled that the benefits for all asylum seekers in Germany must be increased.
Usually, asylum seekers in Germany are accommodated in collective centres and receive food and clothes in kind. In the past a family of four also received a stipend of €120 a month.
The July ruling has increased that stipend to at least €420 a month. If the family has to purchase its food and clothing itself, it will now receive more than €1,100 a month. This is many times the average monthly income in Serbia and Macedonia. In Germany, the basic asylum procedure for Balkan nationals takes at least two-and-a-half months. Then a rejected asylum seeker appeals, which means he or she can stay on average another five months.
To understand what Germany would actually need to do to reduce the number of Balkan asylum applications, just look at its neighbours.
Last year in Austria, which is even closer to the Balkans and also has large communities of Balkan people, only 380 Balkan nationals asked for asylum. Austria had put all Western Balkan states on a list of “countries of safe origin.” Today it decides on asylum claims of Balkan citizens in a week.
Germany could also look to the Netherlands.
A few years ago, the Netherlands reformed its asylum system and now resolves most claims, including those from Balkan citizens, in an expedited fashion (eight working days after a preparation period of a few days). If a rejected asylum seeker appeals a negative decision, the court decides within four weeks. The Netherlands registered 430 claims by Balkan citizens in 2011.
If the solution is obvious, it is also in the hands of concerned EU member states. Instead of advocating such solutions, however, which are in line with EU legislation and the UN Refugee Convention, the European Commission has put the blame on the governments of the Western Balkans.
On 15 October this year, the commission’s spokesman for home affairs, Michele Cercone, explained once again that visa liberalisation for the Western Balkans “comes with huge responsibilities. It is more than time now for these countries, their authorities and their citizens, to prove they can handle this huge responsibility."
But what can Serb, Macedonian or Albanian politicians do to “act responsibly”? The commission demands that Balkan governments run “information awareness campaigns,” carry out “exit controls” and “investigation of facilitators."
Information campaigns? The potential asylum seekers know that their chances to receive international protection are minimal, but they also know what the different asylum systems offer. Which information would prevent them from using the generous ones?
Facilitators largely do not exist since there is not much money to be made with cheap bus tickets to Berlin or Luxembourg.
The suggestion of “exit controls” is also insidious. As almost all the asylum seekers are Roma, it is hard to avoid ethnic profiling and open discrimination if this were systematically implemented. In fact one of the conditions for lifting the visa barrier was for the Balkan countries to provide access to travel and identity documents for all citizens including Roma and other minorities.
Safe countries of origin
The best way forward for reforming visa requirements would be for all countries benefiting from visa-free travel following a liberalisation process - which includes a focus on human rights - to be declared “safe countries of origin” at the EU level.
Under EU asylum legislation, claims from citizens originating in safe countries of origin can be prioritised and dealt with under an accelerated procedure, as is the case in Austria today.
In 1997, EU member states negotiated a protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty under which they agreed to treat each other as safe countries of origin.
The asylum procedures directive, which was adopted in late 2005, mentioned Romania and Bulgaria - not yet EU members at the time - as safe countries of origin. The same directive also allowed member states to compose their own lists of safe countries.
As long as the commission continues to advocate pointless measures, and member states refuse to address the underlying issue, which is generous asylum systems that can be abused, this problem cannot be solved. Nor would a suspension of visa-free travel work unless it is permanent. The only viable and effective solution would be for EU member states to reform their own systems.
EU interior ministers need to admit, and the European Commission needs to remind them, that for once it is not the Balkan countries which are failing.