Tanja Hafner Ademi, MA
- Coordinator of the Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN)

“DOES it really matter? Visa facilitation in the Western Balkans: Monitoring of the New Agreements" was the title of a project lead by a group of civil society organizations (CSOs) from 5 Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia) and a Brussels-based organization ECAS. The project took place between April and December 2008 and was aimed at finding out whether the Visa Facilitation Agreements for the mentioned countries, which entered into force on 1st January, 2008, made any difference for the citizens applying for a Schengen visa. The visa hotline collected first-hand accounts of visa applicants experiences. The survey tried to uncover whether the applicants have felt the positive effect of the Agreements (e.g. a single visa handling fee of 35 Euro, 10 days deadline for handing of a visa application) as well as whether there was a unified approach in applying the Schengen and the Visa Facilitation Agreement by the consular offices of selected EU Member States consulates. Both the hotline and the survey showed that the applicants have been able to feel little or non positive effects. In fact, the project showed that the Agreements did not address the core problems faced by the applicants such as standards of treatments by consular staff, receiving explanation of reasons for a denial of visa, standard set of application documents for all Schengen consulates.

The concluding conference of the project took place on 10th December last year. The main expectation from the organizers and over 100 representatives of governments, media and CSOs, were on the reaction of the European Commission representatives as the driving force of the Visa Facilitation process. But their reaction was quite unexpected, on the negative. While the Commission officials present found the project and the research very interesting, it was much too early to talk about effects of the Agreements, let alone to talk about visa liberalization, i.e. visa-free travel for citizens of the Western Balkans to the Schengen countries. The visa liberalization had come to light in May 2008 when the Commission had delivered a set of requirements for taking these countries from the black Schengen list in form of so-called Roadmaps. Since of course, the Schengen Agreements took many years of negotiation and implementation, Commission representative explained, it can not be expected that visa-free travel would become reality over night. For the audience, compraising mainly from people, who qued in lines to obtain a Schengen visa to participate to this event and myself also, this came as a cold shower and a shock. It then became obvious that the expectations of “improving people-to-people contacts between the citizens of the EU and the region” and “a further proof of the EU's commitment to the region's European perspective” announced by the Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, when launching the Visa Facilitation Agreements just over a year before, are not in tune with the growing frustrations on the part of the thousands of citizens queing daily in front of the Schengen consulates.

WHY than it really matters? It really matters because thousands of citizens in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo are queing daily to get information on what is a Schengen visa, they are queing to get information on what number and type of documents need to be submitted to apply, then they are also queing to get the application documents or somewhere queing to pay the visa-handling fee. Save of citizens of Albania, all of the rest of the countries in the region have known a very liberally or free-travel regime till the beginning of 1990s. In 1960s, SFR Yugoslavia signed a series of bilateral agreements with most of the European countries (except with Albania and Greece) establishing visa free regimes. Consequently, the borders of Yugoslavia opened and a significant number of Yugoslav citizens went to work and travelled freely in the Western Europe. The single fact of possessing a Yugoslav passport allowed citizens to travel to countries of the European Community at that time. And imagine this person now, a decade latter, having to que in lines to apply for a sticking piece a paper in his or her passport in order to be able to travel to a country that he or she could travel freely just a decade and half ago?! Is it not like putting a free bird in a cage? Is it possible to imagine frustrations of a person that has been able to travel quite freely all of her or his life to visit his or her counsins in Germany and France, but has now mayor difficulties or is not allowed to travel at all due to visa deniel? Can you imagine being asked in every encounter with a stranger who knows your face: “So, when can we expect to travel to Europe without a visa?” After the December conference, I am very hesitant to predict years, let alone months or days when this will happen.

And for WHO it matters? The obvious answer is the citizens of the Western Balkans. Can one imagine the feeling of a person on “the moment of truth”; i.e. when one is queing to get his or her answer on the application request, which can prevent someone visiting their parents or a sister or a new-born nephew or niece. And if this is the case, there is no explanation why, no second chance (well maybe, in a one year time). Is it really that we can than wait for another year to see whether the Visa Facilitation Agreementss are functioning? Is it possible to have this human dimension in sight when going about buisness in Brussels and the effect and the extent to which their speadiness and urgency can help prevent the above situation? Or can it just be business as usuall? And if so, what is the possible price to be payed in the context of the accession process of these countries? Is it not than that this process in fact is urgent and important and should also ring bells in Brussels and not just bring daily frustrations to the Western Balkans?

One of the main conclusions (besides the fact that Schengen countries do not apply uniformly the Schengen and Visa Facilitation Agreements) of the the survey undertaken in the mentioned project was that “human rights and dignity matter to these applicants more than tangible inconveniences” or put simply, the single fact of having to go through a process of application and scrutiny by a Schengen consulate officer is associated with undignified, intrusive and humiliating act. A felling of a second rate citizen. Can such a person than feel very enthusiastic and does he or she feels that EU countries is a place where he or she is wanted? Could there be a correlation between the rise of nationalism in youth in some of the countries and the fact that most have never travelled abroad or to the EU? Can than the protraction or at least the non-urgency of the visa facilitation and liberalization process bring negative consequences for the support for the EU integration process and the painful reforms associated with this? Can, finally, such a person fell he or she will be an equal partner and citizens, once his or her country joins the EU?

Finally, in the midst of a global economic crisis and an EU internal institutional frenzy, the enlargement process of the Western Balkans is falling down the EU priority list. Links between this process and the visa facilitation and liberalization are real and tangible as the freedom of movement is one of the key expected benefifts of enlargement by the citizens in the Western Balkans. Both processes need to be merrit-, not politically-based as some current top EU politicians are explaing. But primarily, the benefits on both the Western Balkans citizens’ side and also on the EU side need to be carefully weighted and studied as currently the fear of a “Balkan Polish plumber” and “Balkan organized crime bosses” are the myths circling amidst fear of loss of jobs to the economic crisis and tough times ahead for citizens of the EU. Lastly, while the “the last wall still to fall in Europe - the Schengen wall”, a popular current terme for the Schengen visa regime introduced by the young Macedonia Vice-Prime Minister for European Affairs Ivica Bocevski, might need some time to be brought down and the politicians and the media are focusing on visa-free travel, the reality for an ordinary citizens is that of having to que in line for a visa today, tomorrow and many more days to come. And every effort, respect and urgency on the part of the Commission, Members States and other Schengen countries’ consulates as well as the national governments to improve the functioning of the Visa Facilitation Agreements and to push the implementation of the Visa Liberalization Roadmaps is highly recommended.

Ljubljana, 27 March 2009