Europe's Visa Policy for the Balkans

Protesters march in the center of Skopje, in November, shouting slogans against the long and costly procedures for obtaining visas, and demanding the abolishment of the visa barrier for Macedonia. (Photo: Robert Atanasovski / AFP-Getty Images)

With the last European Union enlargement on Jan. 1, and the accession of Bulgaria and Romania into the European Union, the western Balkans finds itself ever more closely encircled by its external borders. As the new guardians of the European Union's frontiers, Romania and Bulgaria had to tighten their borders in order to protect the common European space. The two countries extended or constricted visa regimes on their western borders. Bulgaria erected a visa barrier for Macedonia and Serbia. Romania had already done this some time ago.

This means a few more bricks in the wall around the Balkans. As Croatia continues its rapprochement with the European Union (being further ahead in the process than its neighbors), it will have to play ball and do the same. Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Serbia remain locked in an ever shrinking economic space. The door in the wall of the European Union grows smaller and smaller and more difficult to pass through by the day. The enlargement of the European Union, contrary to the dominant discourse, will lead to the ghettoization of the Balkans.

None of this seems to be acknowledged in Brussels. The autopilot rhetoric of how the European Union is doing wonderful deeds for the Balkans, how it's only the European Union that can save the region, and how without the it, the Balkans would be lost and would transgress into violence and ethnic mayhem continues to pervade. The Balkans doesn't seem to have a voice of its own in that "dialogue." The debate is completely European Union-dominated and unilateral. It is the European Union that does its best and the ugly Balkans that refuses to reform. The moment the Balkans did reform, the European Union would let its delinquent cousin in.

It is about time that another perspective is spoken out. If the European Union cannot provide real help to the region, it should stop doing harm. It should at least reduce the damage it is inflicting. Many of the European Union's current policies on the Balkans, and its visa policy in particular, are devastatingly detrimental. Its policies hinder the region's economic development and much praised and expected international integration, and, perhaps worst of all, restricts the region's political freedom.

It is easy to say, "But it's only visas." In reality though, visa restrictions have proven to have far-reaching negative economic consequences. The ultimate quantitative impact is not easy to calculate, but it is huge.

There are hundreds of poor families in eastern Macedonia that make a bare subsistence on shuttle trading of foodstuffs in-between Macedonia and Bulgaria. This latest visa barrier simply makes conducting their business much more difficult or impossible. By selling at open markets for a month, they can make up to 100 euros ($130); the visa alone costs 60 euros ($78), without the additional costs of insurance, forms, and travel to the capital to apply for it. That is to say if they manage to get it. The European Union feels safer; the Bulgarian government cashes in; the net losers are the poorest of its citizens.

But it is not just the poor. Big business suffers too. Macedonian truckers lost all their work after Jan. 1, when the visas were installed. They couldn't obtain them so businesses that needed shipping turned to Bulgarian drivers instead. Overall trade between the two countries slumped and the negative impact on the Macedonian economy was imminent.

But getting through the first door, no matter how difficult or expensive it may be, is not enough. A regular business trip across several of the old and new European Union member states can require multiple visas, each of which requires piles of different documents, time, and, of course, money. A modest estimate is several hundred euros and three to four months to satisfy the various visa requirements. And applicants must apply in person. What self-respecting businessman would agree to all that? And what about the psychological humiliation that is an integral part of the process? The newest member states (Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia, from the previous enlargement, and now Romania and Bulgaria) are not party to the Schengen Agreement, which created a visa-free zone of signatory states in Western Europe; hence, each of them applies their own visa regime. And they learned to do it well. The visas for the new member states are by definition more expensive than the Schengen visa, equally difficult to obtain, and usually issued under more restrictive conditions (for example, duration, or number of entries).

According to some modest estimates, the money that the citizens of the Balkan countries spend on visas for the European Union comes close to matching the aid commitments of the European Union to the region. And that is nominal commitments, whereas everyone knows that real aid is usually a small portion of the nominal amount. And that is just the visa, without all the related costs, such as several trips to the capital, expensive insurance, forms and certificates, and translations of documents that can be hundreds of pages long. Perhaps a good trade off would be to suspend all the European Union's overrated aid to the region in exchange for lifting the visa.

But that is not the kind of deal the European Union would endorse. Besides the need to protect itself from migrants, which is the main motive for the visa regime, and not protection against organized crime, as usually declared, there is something else:

European Union diplomats realized that the visa regime was extremely painful for the people from the Balkans and in their zest to "reform" that wicked place came to see visa policy as a strong lever of their highly praised policy of conditionality. The condition needs to be relevant if governments are to respond to it, and visas seemed perfect for the job. Thus, now the European Union has invented "negotiations on visa liberalization" and in exchange for lifting visas, is asking for compliance on all sorts of conditions, from fighting organized crime, to public administration reform, to the extradition of war criminals. In a way, the essence of the European Union's visa policy is that even if visas were not necessary, they would remain required because they are presumably useful to reform ends. Something similar to keeping a child that has done nothing wrong grounded in order to make him behave even better when he grows up.

And likely, the argument for having the visas on the western Balkans is weak. The fear is economic migration. But that fear is absolutely unrealistic. If all the Macedonians (some two million people) migrated from their country in a single day, they would still be fewer in number than the Romanians who have spilled from their country into the European Union over the years. And the same definitely goes for the Montenegrins (only 600,000), Kosovars (two million), and Bosnians (four million) to some extent. And it is clear to anyone who has taken a better look at some of the basic socio-economic indicators on these countries that migration from the western Balkans can never be as strong and intensive as from Romania or to a lesser extent Bulgaria. For the simple reason that the kind of rural poverty still strongly present in the Romanian hinterland cannot be found in the countries of former Yugoslavia (the only exception being some parts of the province of Kosovo in Serbia). These countries have had 50 years of a very different pattern of economic and political development. The standard of living in the western Balkans, despite the wars and the decline, is still overall higher than in Romania and Bulgaria. Does this really need to be explained to Brussels?

The communist legacy of the former Yugoslav republics is completely different from that of Romania and Bulgaria. And not just in economic terms. For 50 years, former Yugoslavs have enjoyed a significant amount of political and civic freedom, as compared to their socialist peers from Eastern Europe. They were free to leave their countries, live abroad, come back, trade to some extent, and travel at the time when some of the new member states lived in totalitarian isolation. Now the tables have turned and the freedom that former Yugoslavs enjoyed for so long has been revoked. Why? Because the European Union wants to reform the Balkans. Why should it have the power to decide that people who have been free for decades will no longer be so?

There were the wars of the last decade, but the wars are over. The Balkans region is not Europe's delinquent cousin. On top of it all, the economic damage that the visas inflict essentially makes them a restriction to freedom in the Balkans. Where can the Balkans go, sealed off like this? On one side is Europe, on the other, Turkey, and behind it the Middle East. Anyone who has stepped foot in the Balkans knows where the region belongs. By now, serious think tanks and senior analysts have agreed on the point that the European Union's visa policy is harmful to the region. But the European Union doesn't seem to be listening, but rather running on autopilot.

How can the European Union claim to be promoting democracy in the Balkans when it has been deliberately, and under some naively false pretenses, depriving its peoples of some of their basic freedoms? What can the European Union expect as a result of such an oppressive policy? Young people will take to the streets. Indeed, they have already started. And they are not likely to stop.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Risto Karajkov.