Will Recent Amendment to the EU Visa Rules Become a Trigger for Negotiations on Visa Liberalisation between the EU and Eastern Neighbours?

Ahead of the third Eastern Partnership Summit to be held on 28-29 November 2013 in Vilnius, there are many undergoing discussions about what it will bring along for the Eastern partners, having among other aspirations visa-free travel.

However, it may seem that with a very debating recent amendment to the EU visa rules (Regulation 539/2001) adopted by the European Parliament on 12 September 2013, which introduces a visa waiver suspension mechanism, future of the visa liberalization process between the EU and the EaP might seem cloudier.

At the same time, during the recent Parliamentary Hearing on Migration and Mobility with the Eastern Partnership, there were no doubts to whether liberalise or not the visa regime with the EaP countries. The will is there, admits Elmar Brok, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the EP. The question is rather how to reach a win-win scenario unfolding visa facilitation and liberalisation processes in the Eastern Neighbourhood. In this regard, Balkan experience is deemed as very relevant.

Visa facilitation and liberalisation processes are generally perceived as an effective political tool of transformation

Visa facilitation and liberalisation processes are generally perceived as an effective political tool of transformation, with the candidate states having to go first through legislative transformation as mentioned in the corresponding Action Plans, and then implementation phase of those legislative amendments. Thus it is viewed as a largely successful exercise of applied conditionality bringing visa free benefits in exchange for the necessity to transform.

In this case we are mostly talking about the Western Balkan states, with Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro having received the right to travel freely in the EU in 2009, and Albania, Bosnia, and Herzegovina joining them in 2010 after a dynamic and efficient transformation process. Perception of this action was close to the fall of the iron curtain, believes Eduard Kukan, Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the EP. At the same time, an important political message was sent to the nations of the Western Balkans: the EU stopped being suspicious toward them and started treating Balkan states as equal partners. With this process being strict but fair (merit-based so to say), Balkan citizens can now be traveling freely and with their example give lots of hopes to the aspiring Eastern Partnership states to join free travel European family. However, each coin has two sides, and the second being increased number of asylum seekers in the EU coming from the Balkans.

Coming back to the recent Parliamentary amendment, the purpose of it was to prevent irregularities or abuse on the side of visa free travelers seeking asylum in the EU and creating extra pressure on the EU MSs. EU politicians are quick to put the responsibility on the Western Balkan governments for increased flows of migrants. However, both Alexandra Stiglmayer, Senior Analyst, European Stability Initiative, and David Reisenzein, Liaison Officer, Frontex Liaison Office, Brussels, believe that the first measure to be taken by the MSs is the revision of their own procedures towards reviewing asylum seekers’ cases.

The asylum seeking procedure can and should be shortened, making the Western Balkans ‘safe countries of origin’. For the latter, the asylum cases should be prioritized, and Germany’s experience shows that the decrease in the length of the decision-making process from 3 months to 9 days only brought over a remarkable decrease in the asylum applications. An average recognition rate of 2.1% in 2011 means that only a minor fraction of asylum seekers were given the status, the rest abusing the law filling in asylum applications to simply live for a couple of months on the benefits which are times higher than their monthly income back in their countries.  

Quick procedure (fast track) would allow lessening the problem, not putting any unnecessary extra pressure on the partner governments and additionally reversing the need to use a visa waiver suspension mechanism, which is not only politically dangerous, but also practically unwieldy and all together unnecessary.

We will soon see in Vilnius whether visa free aspirations of the frontrunners of the visa liberalisation process will be merited accordingly. But who knows, possibly, now with the MSs having the possibility to trigger a ‘safety break’, they should be more willing to give a green light to further visa liberalisation negotiations than ever before.