The European Union and the Balkans: Disparities in the Freedom of Movement

Members of "Goce Delcev," dancing traditional Macedonian dances in front of the British Embassy in Skopje, protest their treatment by clerks after trying to get British visas. (Photo: Robert Atanasovski / AFP-Getty Images)

A fairly typical Balkan story about visas goes like this. At the end of June 2005, members of "Goce Delcev," a folkdance group from Bitola, Macedonia, went to the British Embassy in Skopje to apply for visas for some 45 people. The ensemble had been invited to the prestigious Llangollen folk festival in Wales.

An experienced and well-known group, they had made preparations to perform as they had done at many other international festivals before. They invested heavily in new costumes and set aside some 2,000 euros for visa fees.

When they arrived at the embassy in the 40-degree noon heat, the consular clerk asked them to dance. She wanted to make sure that they were genuine.

In the end, not everyone got a visa. The choreographer, the first clarinetist, the harmonica player, and several of the dancers did not. Perhaps they just didn't meet the clerk's artistic standards.

The local media got onto the story fairly fast. The embassy at first said that it did not comment on visa procedures. But as the media turned up the heat, the ambassador eventually had to provide some sort of explanation.

Ambassador Robert Dickson told the media be believed there had been a "misinterpretation" of what actually happened. The clerk in question had not asked the group to dance, he said, only to demonstrate a dance position.

Instead of traveling to Wales, the band performed a protest dance in front of the embassy. The clerks thus saw the show twice, free of charge.

Shame Campaign

This story is one of many.

Three years ago a journalist from Taiwan raised hell over the behavior of the Greek Embassy in the same Balkan capital. It took a foreigner to express the frustration and humiliation locals routinely experience when dealing with foreign embassies. The journalist, Carol Cheng, accompanied her cameraman to the embassy when he applied for his visa for a business trip. The clerk was furious that the man had the nerve to ask for a visa on short notice. He assaulted him verbally and threw his passport on the floor. In the following days, Cheng collected tens of thousands of signatures in a campaign to shame the Greek embassy.

A regional Balkans nongovernmental group, Citizen's Pact, recently ran a public request to collect stories like these for an ongoing campaign for increased freedom of movement for citizens of the region. They will no doubt make for interesting reading. A man from Albania reportedly killed himself earlier this year after being denied a Greek visa that he had tried to get for over a year. Another person in Bulgaria went on a hunger strike in March to protest against the humiliating procedure he endured while trying, and failing, to get a U.K. visa. He said that his compatriots standing in line to apply for visas looked as if they were "waiting for a verdict."

It is not just ordinary Balkan citizens whose outcries fail to penetrate the thick glass that protect the clerks who guard Europe.

Radmila Sekerinska, Macedonia's deputy prime minister in charge of European affairs had strong words for her European counterparts on the visa issue in late September. She told them it was inconceivable that Macedonian officials should have to line up for visas in order to come to Brussels on state business. Further, she said that the economy of the country was suffering because businesspeople could not have normal contact with partners abroad.

"How can I explain to students," she said, "that 15 years ago, with a train ticket and a handful of cash, I traveled all over Europe and that they cannot do the same today without a pile of papers and money for the visas?"

And there's a darker side to the hurdles that "fortress Europe" has erected to guard against the unwanted. When several would-be immigrants from Albania drowned after their boat capsized, Albanian President Alfred Moisiu criticized E.U. countries for making legal migration all but impossible. "They would not have become victims of trafficking," he said in reference to those who had perished, "if they could have traveled legally."

Keeping Them Out

Trafficking, alongside other forms of organized crime, is part of the routine arguments rolled out by European countries in favor of keeping their borders closed.

The E.U. and its member states have urged Balkan countries to ensure the rule of law, to improve border controls and the quality of travel documents, and to streamline readmission procedures as a condition for a more relaxed visa regime.

Experts often argue that this strategy has little impact on crime. Moreover, since there is no clear list of demands put to Balkan countries, any future decision on loosening the current tough visa requirements is bound to be political.

Bosnian Prime Minister Adnan Terzic wrote to Brussels twice, in 2004 and 2005, to ask for such a checklist. The unofficial reply was that there was no such thing.

Piotr Kazmierkiewicz of the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw told Transitions Online (TOL) that the requirements of the Schengen Agreement, which created a visa-free zone of signatory states in Western Europe, were seen as "a moving target" and as "unclear and shifting" by those who had to meet them.

"This was certainly the experience of the new E.U. member states," Kazmierkiewicz said, "whose conclusion of E.U. negotiations did not bring about simultaneous entry into the Schengen [area]."

But if visa-free travel is such a powerful incentive, why not use it to extract other commitments or concessions from E.U. aspirants?

Kazmierkiewicz doesn't think the idea has much traction: "Schengen is currently viewed as an important security mechanism for compensating for the freedom of movement that exists within the E.U., and represents a core priority for the E.U. in the negotiations [with aspirant countries]. For this reason, I would expect that Schengen accession would not be an issue over which member states would bargain for [concessions in] other areas," he said.

There is also an economic component. Macedonian citizens alone may spend up to 10 million euros per year on visas, mainly to E.U. countries, according to some estimates. Visas for Greece alone — over 100,000 in 2004 — would account for a third of that sum. If these numbers are accurate, the money Macedonians pay to foreign governments for the privilege of traveling to E.U. countries represents one-third of the entire assistance to Macedonia the E.U. has pledged for 2005 under the CARDS assistance program for the Western Balkans.

"Visas could be cheaper," Kazmierkiewicz sums up the issue. Still, he says, "research indicates that in the long run minimal fees are necessary to cover the cost of the issuing of visas and to prevent cases of unnecessary applications."

Peter Kovacs, a professor of international law and author of a study of the problems that have been raised by the Schengen Agreement, told TOL, "The visa fee is a problem but maybe not the most important one. The other criteria [for receiving a visa] — return plane ticket, specific hotel booking in advance, precise medical information if the person is traveling for medical reasons, a credit card, or a certain amount of hard currency — are all conditions that cannot be met easily in Eastern Europe. A plane ticket is rather absurd in a case of a short trans-border journey that can easily be done by car or even by bike in some cases."

"Humanize the Process"

Another dimension that is easily forgotten — though not by the visa applicants — is basic human dignity. The chairman of a Bosnian business association recently called for the "humanization of the visa process." Anyone who has ever stood in line to file a visa application in the Balkans will know what he had in mind.

But there's also criticism from within. The Greek daily Kathimerini recently scolded its country's border control authorities for their "degrading attitude" towards citizens from neighboring countries. The paper said that an Albanian might sometimes be left to wait for days at the border because a border cop doesn't like his face. It argued that everything that diplomacy is trying to build could easily be undone by the actions of a single immigration official.

A recent high-profile report by the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato, called the visa situation in the Balkans "most discouraging," arguing that the young people of the region who are the keenest supporters of European values are "those who experience the greatest difficulty in visiting the E.U."

The report called for "change as a matter of urgency."

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, in a report issued in late November, reached similar conclusions.

The report said that the current visa regime in the Balkans was "fostering resentment, inhibiting progress on trade, business, education and more open civil societies, and as a result contributing negatively to regional stability."

It went on to argue for a selective liberalization for certain categories of travelers — an idea the E.U. has taken up already — and for "simplified, speedier, less painful" visa procedures for all applicants.

The report agrees with the common argument that "the present system restricts mainly those who should be allowed to benefit from the E.U.'s proximity, with the majority being made to pay for a criminal minority." It recommends scrapping visa fees.

But having visa requirements lifted does not necessarily mean that trouble is over, as the recent example of Romania demonstrates.

Citizens of Romania have been able to travel without a visa since 2002 to the Schengen zone countries. (Other than Greece, Croatia is the only other Balkan country from which one can travel without a visa to most E.U. countries.)

But in light of numerous reports that Romanians were traveling to E.U. countries, often under false pretenses with the intention of illegally staying and working, the E.U. got tough on the Romanian authorities, and they reacted in a manner reminiscent of the Ceausescu era: they pretty much closed the border from within.

In August 2005, Romanian Interior Minister Vasile Blaga issued a press release stating that the authorities had prevented some 1.2 million people — a third of all travelers — from leaving the country since the start of the year, either because they didn't have enough money to support themselves during their trip or because they were unable to produce a credible reason for travel. In addition, the passports of some 4,000 citizens who had exceeded their 90 days of stay in the Schengen zone were revoked, only to be returned after a week of bitter protests at the borders.

In October, Bucharest tightened the screws still further with new rules for travel to most of Europe. The restrictions for travel even to non-Schengen countries, such as neighboring Hungary, were so tight, and the protests from the public and the Hungarian government loud enough, that after four days the authorities relaxed the rules on travel to European countries outside the Schengen zone.

True, there has been some give-and-take on the part of the E.U. In early 2005, Brussels passed a motion to enable easier visa access to certain categories of travelers, such as students, scientists, and businessmen. In September, it suggested a measure for easier travel across old and new E.U. member states: under the proposal, a Schengen visa would automatically allow up to five days of transit through new member states that are still not part of the Schengen area. For many citizens of the Balkan countries, getting a visa for a new member state such as Hungary or Slovenia can be as difficult as getting a Schengen visa.

Still, the European visa regime is keeping its painful and humiliating grip on the peoples of the Balkans. The E.U.'s Erasmus program is often held up as a promoter of European values, by giving young people the chance to travel. At the same time, the Amato report notes that over 70 percent of young people in Serbia have never traveled abroad. What values will they have?

The EU Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, Franco Frattini, said only a few days ago that lifting visa requirements for the Western Balkan countries was unrealistic for now. In a speech at a conference organized by the European Policy Center in Brussels on Nov. 30, he argued that visa policies could be a useful instrument for encouraging E.U. hopefuls to implement integration-related reforms. But he also noted that the recent riots in France had made E.U. members more concerned about illegal migration and security than before.

Never mind that the overwhelming majority of rioters were French citizens.

Risto Karajkov is a doctoral student in development at the University of Bologna and a freelance consultant. This article first appeared in Transitions Online, online at Republished by permission of the author.

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