EU proposes visa-free travel to some in Balkans but not all

16th July 2009, Comments 0 comments

The commission wants to lift visa requirements for citizens from Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro into the 25-nation Schengen no borders area from January, but not for those from Bosnia and Albania.

Brussels -- The European Commission proposed Wednesday extending visa-free travel in Europe to three Balkan states, raising concern the move would exacerbate ethnic tensions in the volatile region.

The commission wants to lift visa requirements for citizens from Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro into the 25-nation Schengen no borders area from January, but not for those from Bosnia and Albania.

Academics, experts and Greens party members criticised the move, saying it would create "two classes of citizens" in the Balkans based on ethnicity by paving the way for Bosnians of Serb origin to travel to Europe but not others.

"It's a historic step in our relations with the Western Balkans," EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot said in announcing the plan, which must still be ratified by the 27 EU nations and the European parliament.

"It is going to permit more frequent and closer relations between these three states and the Schengen area," he told reporters in Brussels.

Bosnia-Hercegovina and Albania were not included largely because they had not begun the systematic introduction of biometric passports, he said.

The EU failed to prevent the bloody breakup of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s but the prospect of EU membership has proved a powerful force for reform and the bloc often makes gestures to reassure the region's countries about their future.

But Serbia's efforts to sign a key trade and aid pact, seen as a first step toward EU membership, are frozen, and Macedonia's accession process is held up by a dispute over the country's very name with Greece.

Elsewhere in the Balkans, Croatia's hopes are blocked by a border dispute with neighbour and EU member Slovenia.

Macedonia is considered best prepared in the region for visa-free travel, having met criteria for document security, illegal immigration, public order, external relations and basic rights.

Macedonia has been an official candidate to join the EU since 2005 but has not been given a date to begin accession talks.

In a gesture to Serbia last year, the EU eased visa restrictions for some Serbs, making them cheaper and easier to obtain for students, athletes, journalists, and people visiting family or working with companies in the bloc.

Yet Belgrade's EU membership hopes are held up by the Netherlands because Bosnian Serb genocide suspect Ratko Mladic remains on the run, most likely in Serbia.

In a statement, the academics, Greens party members and experts -- including former international envoy to Bosnia Christian Schwartz-Schilling -- complained that Bosnian Serbs would be able to travel to Europe using their Serbian passports.

The move, they said, "will increase tensions within the fragile post-war societies as the plans of the commission will formalise ethnic divisions and provide them with dubious legitimacy."

Mladic has been indicted for war crimes over the massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the war-time UN enclave of Srebrenica almost exactly 14 years ago.

"It is evidence of the EU's poor political judgement that Bosniak survivors and relatives of the killed will be disadvantaged in comparison to the hundreds of suspected perpetrators who committed crimes in Srebrenica and who continue to evade justice," the statement said.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn rejected the criticism, blaming Bosnia's leaders for constant infighting rather than focusing on an issue that would have direct benefits for Bosnian citizens.

"Too much time and energy has been consumed in nationalist rhetoric instead of taking decisions," he said, adding that Bosnia and Albania could, if they worked at it, win a recommendation for visa-free travel in mid-2010.

AFP/Expatica

 

0 Comments To This Article