(The Lack of) Freedom of Movement in the Balkans

Hundreds of Macedonian citizens wait to apply for a visa in front of the consular department of the Bulgarian embassy in Skopje. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

A fellow Hungarian shares the following story. "We Hungarians were the most free of all the peoples in Eastern Europe during communist times. Once in three years we could travel out of the country without any restrictions."

When a former Yugoslav hears this, his or her eyes open wide in bewilderment. Due to former Yugoslavia's geopolitical position during the Cold War, and the much gentler grip of its regime, compared to the countries from the Soviet bloc (Yugoslavia was nonaligned), its citizens were by and large free to roam the world in the post-World War II period. Before that, it hardly mattered in today's sense of the word.

But now tables have turned. The former poor Eastern Europeans the Yugoslavs pitied—turned European. And before too long, they forgot how it was to be trapped inside.

They become as relentless as the old members of the club they joined were, if not more.

Former Yugoslavs, on the contrary, got the other end of the stick. A few bloody succession wars and raging nationalism resurrected the images from the beginning of the 20th century: the "powder keg," bloodthirsty tribes slaughtering each other, ethnic feuds. Southeastern Europe turned into "the Balkans."

In parallel, two other major trends were happening. The first one was the end of the bipolar freeze, which brought about the issue of migration globally. The second one was the expansion and ever-closer integration of the European Union, which exacerbated the regional dimension of the same issue.

On Jan. 1, 2007, with the last EU enlargement (adding Bulgaria and Romania) the people of the Western Balkans (except Croatia) woke up to realize that they are completely surrounded by the thick walls of Europe. They woke up to realize they could not move out.

The wall was not built over night. In the beginning, it was the Schengen Agreement. Then the subsequent enlargements that installed new and ever more complex restrictions, as the new member states were compelled by the old EU to protect the new outer borders.

All until this year, when the Balkans found itself completely surrounded.

It would be far too tedious to try to explain the complexity of this new political reality for the people from the Balkans. Instead, let's just say that it imposes a heavy to impossible transaction cost to the functioning of the Balkan economy. A businessperson planning a business trip through a few new EU member states and a few of the old ones would have to spend a month (at least) obtaining visas. Anyone confronted with such a challenge, realizing on top of that the amount of working hours he or she would have to spend in all the different consulates, would simply give up. And let's not forget the cost. Many estimates have pointed out that a significant share of the financial aid the EU gives to these countries is offset by what they spend on visas. Why not simply reduce or completely withdraw aid in exchange for lifting of the visas? The governments of the Balkans would instantly agree to such a deal.

In the meantime, bureaucrats in Brussels cry their lungs out with the worn our phrase of how regional integration of the Balkans is critical for its rapprochement with the EU. Can there be a better example of how much political rhetoric can be divorced from political reality? Can there be a blunter instance of how deeds defy words?

How can a state integrate regionally if it cannot move out?

Visa prices and the example of the difficulty of travel above are merely the tip of the iceberg. The long-term economic cost will far outweigh the short-term one, which is nevertheless gigantic. How can these countries have a shipping industry for example? Their truckers lost their businesses. Customers want reliability; they do not want to hear that the consular clerk (who gets to decide) had a bad day. How will companies promote their exports and fight for a market abroad? And in a longer term—how will they ever integrate? How can the young Balkan businesspersons of today be expected to create a way for the global integration of their economies when they are likely not to be able to find their way around a larger international airport? How would they, when they have never seen one?

In addition, is the economic argument really necessary in order to explain why the revoking of an essential political freedom, which a people had enjoyed largely throughout modernity, is simply historically unjust?

EU officials denounce Balkan nationalism but turn their heads at the statistic that over 70 percent of young people in the region have never travelled abroad. Not exactly the prerequisite for a cosmopolitan mindset.

In the meantime, the EU continues the redundant chorus about the promising European future of the Balkan countries, and celebrates the high approval ratings for the enlargement in accession candidates.

There is a point that perhaps is not sufficiently well understood in Brussels. For the vast majority of the people in the Balkans, Europe is a synonym of visa-free travel, of freedom to move. So when they see the high approval ratings in the Balkans, it is actually the despair of the people they see.

It appears that at least some people in Brussels have started to grasp the detrimental effect of their policy on the Balkans, and likely the hypocrisy of the rhetoric. The EU signed partial visa liberalization agreements with the governments in the region guaranteeing easy visas for certain categories of people: students, businesspersons, researchers. The deal is to become effective next year but it is yet to be seen how it will look in reality. It is very possible that it will be too little too late.

The EU needs to lift the visas now, not in five years. It also needs to lift the visas unconditionally, not pending completely unrelated reforms.

The fear of migration is overblown. If all the Macedonians boarded buses one Friday afternoon and left the country, they would still be fewer than all the Romanians who have migrated abroad. If all the Montenegrin labor force migrated, perhaps it could match the size of Bulgarian migrations to France and Spain. And once again, rural poverty (which feeds migration) in the countries of former Yugoslavia (with perhaps the exception of Kosovo) is simply not comparable to the one in the countries from the former Soviet bloc. Fifty years of developmental difference does not go away just like that. No matter what the rhetoric of the day is.

If the EU wants to help, it should stop hindering. It should lift the visas. Or alternatively, it should simply stop talking about how it wants to help.