Western Balkans’ independent visa policies bring new headaches for EU

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Migration has bedeviled the EU over the last several years with waves of migrants from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia illegally crossing into the bloc via Turkey or by sea from the Mediterranean. Managing this flow is not easy as the current rules known as the “Dublin Redistribution Formula” are hard to apply. Northern countries simply do not want to take migrants who crossed into Europe through its southern members.

These largely unskilled and poorly educated migrants have been cynically weaponized by unfriendly non-EU neighbors – principally Turkey and Belarus – and pushed across Europe’s borders and onto the sovereign territory of Greece, Poland and Spain. This was a conscious strategy by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to punish or blackmail those countries to exact concessions from them and/or the EU.

New trends emerge in the Western Balkans

A curious migration source of a third kind has emerged recently in the Western Balkans. Nationals from African and Asian countries travel visa-free to Serbia where they “disappear”, only to reappear in Austria, Slovenia and other EU countries. Recent data has shown a sharp increase in asylum applications from people coming from India, Cuba, Tunisia and Burundi.

All of these countries have a visa-free entry agreement with Serbia, most of them established only recently. The German interior minister has suggested that all these countries, which coincidently do not recognize Kosovo, have been rewarded by Belgrade for denying Kosovo’s independence. Other senior EU ministers believe Serbia is attempting to destabilize Europe by flooding it with migrants at the behest of Russia.

Those illegal migrants that are turned back at Serbia’s EU borders are reported to be living in temporary squats inside northern Serbia close to the borders with EU member countries.

In the case of Albania, Tirana may not be Moscow-oriented, or demonstratively Kremlin-friendly, but its work-visa arrangements with third countries are presenting the same problem for the EU. While laborers from Bangladesh may come via employment agencies to work in Albania, they usually vanish after a few months and re-emerge in one of the nearest European Union member countries.

In the latest annual report by FRONTEX, Europe’s border protection agency, the agency noted that there has been a tripling of irregular entries from the so-called ‘Balkan Route’ for migrants, who are now mainly using Belgrade’s airport as the first point of entry.

EU considers new restrictions

The worsening situation has been met with certain forceful responses by East European national governments, some of which have suspended the freedom-of-movement Schengen border regime to block the flow of undocumented migrants. In September, four EU members – including Germany and Austria, along with non-EU member Switzerland, though it participates in the borderless Schengen area – wrote to the European Commission asking it to finally find a solution to the problem.

The Vice President of the Commission, Margaritis Schinas, and the Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, traveled to the Balkans in October and visited both Belgrade and Tirana. Their statements after the arranged meetings were nothing more than the usual toothless Brussels platitudes,

They did, however, threaten to suspend the visa-free agreement the EU has with Albania and Serbia if the two nations do not align their visa policies with those of the European Union. Brussels’ threat was indirectly confirmed by a leaked note from the Czech Republic, which currently chairs the EU’s rotating presidency. The message to the 27 members of the bloc reportedly said that if all efforts fail to force Belgrade and Tirana into compliance regarding their visa policies, the visa suspension mechanism could be used against them.

Both of the troublemaking Western Balkan governments appear to have obliged, or at least they have sent Brussels indications that their visa-free entry rules are being reviewed. Having the right of their citizens to travel visa-free across the EU either suspended or modified in any way would be utterly politically unpalatable for Albania’s leader, Edi Rama, and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic.

This episode clearly illustrates the corrosive direction that some Western Balkan countries have been moving in the past decade. Instead of developing and cultivating Western institutions and values, as well as reliably cooperating with the European Union, with whom they genuinely hope to benefit, they instead regularly breach agreements with Brussels when it suits them.

For its part, Brussels showed in this last case over the migrant problem that the EU’s usually feckless bureaucrats are persuasive only when they waive a big stick at those who openly mock them.

*Genc Pollo is a former minister and former Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on EU Integration in Albania. 

Source : TiranaTimes