Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Consular Sadists

"We have returned to the dark ages," laments a senior Balkan diplomat from behind his stately Brussels desk. An aide nods in agreement. The subject is not political or economic deterioration in his country but a stifling EU visa regime that impedes legitimate travel to the Union from his region. "Even Tito let us travel more," adds the diplomat with a shrug.

The progression of the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro including Kosovo) from war-torn haven for war criminals to potential EU member states has been strewn with internal difficulties. It is ironic, therefore, that present concerns raised by countless officials, journalists and students stem more from intransigence in Brussels and EU capitals than from Western Balkan failures.

A pattern of rejection and suspicion is repeated in consulates across the region as citizens attempt to gain legal short-term access to the member states of the EU and are hampered by lengthy, subjective, expensive and humiliating procedures, which, to use the words of the exasperated Balkan diplomat, amount to "consular sadism".

The assault course laid out for visa applicants varies for each consulate as minimum requirements provided by a common EU visa policy can be complicated at the discretion of member states. Typically, a visa that should cost €30 is costing as much as €140, not including extra costs incurred while acquiring and translating a litany of supporting documents. The applicant must then face consular staff that may have a less than objective view on who can or cannot receive the official stamp.

Currently the Western Balkans remain outside transatlantic structures, have problems with organised crime and corruption and suffer from a perception of being a security threat to their neighbours. But none of this should lead to the regional equivalent of solitary confinement.

Isolating and humiliating a generation of students, journalists, civil society and officials in Balkan consular queues is hardly the way to encourage a European perspective to which the EU has explicitly committed itself.

How are young people supposed to be enthusiastic about an EU they are largely unable to experience? The generation that is being trusted to take the Western Balkans out of narrow-minded nationalism and conflict towards a European future is not being given the tools to do so.

This visa regime is also having a detrimental effect on the individual states the EU is putting so much energy into developing. Those that cannot travel legally seek other ways in which to do so, either through people smugglers, the black market in forged documents or by applying for citizenship, through family ties, of neighbouring countries that are allowed access. These side-effects further split already ethnically divided societies, undermine nascent efforts at state-building and increase dissatisfaction with their own governments.

Full access to the EU, such as that given to Bulgaria and Romania in 2001 and 2002 respectively, would be premature. But allowing certain groups a simpler, faster route to Europe is eminently feasible, safe and logical.

Member states should begin negotiations with each Western Balkan state on a selective Schengen visa liberalisation regime for academics, the business and trade community, civil society, media, and officials. This should include key elements that have already been negotiated with other countries, including Russia. The application procedure should also be improved (facilitated) for all other citizens, involving a simplified process with fewer supporting documents required and a significantly reduced processing time.

On 30 November, European Commission Vice-President Franco Frattini promised to submit a negotiating mandate for visa facilitation to the Council of Ministers, including clear and comprehensive road maps for each country to follow in order to reach the goal of visa liberalisation for certain groups and to simplify the common consular instructions.

Progress also requires continued commitment by the Western Balkans states themselves in areas such as border integration and security sector reform. But it is the minimalist approach by the EU to a region that is dangerously balanced between nationalist recidivism on the one hand and European integration on the other, that needs to be urgently addressed.

The importance of the freedom to travel cannot be overestimated. A senior Bulgarian official enthused that Bulgaria's liberalised status was a moment of trust between Bulgaria and the EU: "This signal was enough to unite politicians and citizens this step, Bulgarians knew that Europe was serious about their EU perspective."

It is time the citizens of the Western Balkans were reminded that the EU is serious about theirs.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.