By Dzyanis Melyantsou
Europe's Schengen arrangement, which allows people to cross borders without having their passports checked, expanded on December 21 to include nine new members of the European Union – the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Three of these countries share borders with Belarus. What are the consequences of the move for the Belarusian citizens and the country's relations with the EU neighbors?
On 14 June 1985, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany signed an accord in Schengen, Luxembourg, to gradually abolish systematic border checks. The agreement included provisions on common policies regarding the temporary entry of third-country nationals (including holders of Schengen visas), the harmonization of external border controls and cross-border police cooperation. By the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, the accord was incorporated into the law of the European Union.
All 27 EU members, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland have signed the Schengen agreement, and 24 countries have implemented it so far. Ireland and the UK are only involved in cross-border police cooperation but are not part of the Schengen visa-free area. Switzerland, Cyprus, BulgariaRomania are expected to join the arrangement between 2008 and 2011. and
Before 21 December 2007, the Schengen visa-free zone included Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.
The EU foreign ministers agreed on November 8, 2007 to extend the Schengen area to the nine youngest EU states that joined the bloc in 2004. The ministers scheduled the removal of border controls at road checkpoints and seaports for December 21 and at airports on March 30, 2008. Once third-country nationals enter the zone, they are free to move across all member states.
Unfortunately, things do not look so bright from the other side of the EU border. Belarusians must pay higher visa fees to travel to EU countries, including the neighboring countries with which Belarus maintains close economic ties. Before December 25, a single-entry visa to Lithuania cost €5 (a multiple-entry visa €25). Latvia did not collect a visa fee. After the area's enlargement, the countries introduced a standard fee of €60 for both single- and multiple-entry visas. The decision was justified by the costs of the updated Schengen database of criminal records.
Although Schengen agreements require member countries to collect the same fee from third-country nationals, countries can reduce or waive fees for certain groups under national legislation aimed to promote cultural, foreign policy and other vital interests. Lower fees usually apply to children, schoolchildren, students, post-graduate students and accompanying teachers who travel to take part in training, and researchers traveling with scientific purposes.
Before the new rules took effect, Belarus entered into talks with some of the prospective members like Poland and Lithuania on lower visa fees and additional categories of persons eligible for simplified procedures. Since the negotiations have not been transparent it is difficult to comment on progress before certain decisions are announced. Several foreign diplomats made it clear that the heads of diplomatic missions and consuls will be guided by the general rules and decide on discounts on a case-by-case basis.
Who will be affected by more expensive visas? Will the wall dividing the Belarusians from the EU be much higher and more difficult to climb?
Most of those who apply for visas are students who study abroad, tourists, those with family abroad, businesspeople, and the so-called chelnoki or cross-border shuttle traders.
Students could be the most affected because they are not economically independent. However, Belarusian students receiving instruction in EU countries are eligible for preferential treatment and are likely to get Schengen visas free of charge. The higher fee is unlikely to discourage tourists and business travelers who spend much money on air tickets and hotels. On the other hand, the Schengen area expansion creates new opportunities and benefits for travelers. For instance, flying from Vilnius to European capitals is cheaper than from Minsk or Moscow. Travelers no longer need to obtain separately a Schengen and a Lithuanian visa to fly from Vilnius. Shuttle traders, most of whom just smuggle goods across the border, will find it more difficult to substantiate their request for a multiple Schengen visa unless they have reliable "partners" or close relatives in EU countries. It will take them one trip to cover higher visa costs. It seems that the hardest hit will be people who often visit their relatives living across the border. But they are likely to become eligible for a simplified visa regime as a result of negotiations between Belarus and its neighbors.
Therefore, in contrast with allegations by Belarusian officials, more expensive visas will not substantially reduce the flow of travelers from Belarus to the EU.
The introduction of Schengen visas and new border and customs control rules by neighboring countries is more a political and diplomatic issue. Based on the principle of reciprocity, Belarus is supposed to complicate visa formalities for the nationals of EU countries. However, Belarusian diplomats realize that the EU states that entered the Schengen zone have little room for maneuver because their visa and customs policies must be in line with EU regulations. The Belarusian authorities are unlikely to take tough measures in response to the tight border controls. On the other hand, the government has used the occasion to accuse the EU of erecting barriers for Belarusians and isolating the country.
The EU countries, especially Belarus' neighbors, have found themselves in an embarrassing situation. Despite declarations of willingness to boost ties with the Belarusian people (see the EU non-paper "What the European Union could bring to Belarus"), they must comply with the agreement and introduce more stringent requirements for citizens of countries outside the new Schengen zone. This is indicative of the lack of a consistent EU strategy with regard to Belarus.
European bureaucrats would like to offer Belarusians cheaper visas but they have no legal grounds to make Belarus an exception from the general rule. The EU could negotiate a special agreement with Belarus if it participated in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) like Ukraine or Moldova. But the EU made Belarus' involvement in the ENP conditional on democratic change, which implies reform of the political system, something that authorities have flatly refused to accept. This means that Belarusian citizens pay for misunderstandings between the Belarusian government and European organizations.
So, why could not the EU offer preferential treatment to Belarus? If the EU can sign special agreements in the framework of the ENP, why can not it strike a special deal with Belarus under the document "What the European Union could bring to Belarus"?
European policymakers seem to consider Belarus a country of minor importance that does not qualify for a special clause in the EU's rules and procedures. Belarusian opposition politicians and analysts have blown what they call "the Belarusian issue" out of proportion. Belarus has been attributed a small role, which continues to diminish. For this reason, the EU makes no distinction between Belarus and other countries in its European Neighborhood Policy, has introduced more expensive visas, lacks a consistent program to engage with the Belarusian civic society, and came up with the non-paper "What the European Union could bring to Belarus" instead of a fully-fledged democratization strategy.
The Belarusian authorities seem to be benefiting from this frosty relationship. It helps reduce the EU's influence on the internal political situation in the country, while more expensive visas help limit Belarusians' contacts with the European reality. This explains the Belarusian government's unenthusiastic diplomatic effort to negotiate visa concessions with neighbors, its reluctance to introduce a visa-free regime with the EU and enact an agreement that would allow the EU to establish a delegation of the European Commission in Minsk.