Controls over who enters the territory of the European Union consist principally of requiring a visa beforehand, and physical checks at the external borders. The way that these tools are applied varies according to the country concerned. In the EU’s neighbourhood, there is discrimination in favour of Norway and Switzerland at one extreme, and against Turkey and Ukraine at the other.
Citizens of Norway and Switzerland enjoy practically the same rights as EU citizens to travel and settle across the EU, because of the two countries’ membership of the Schengen area and a number of bilateral agreements on the freedom of movement.
Turks and Ukrainians, by contrast, still have trouble travelling to the EU for pleasure or business, despite burgeoning business links between their countries and the Schengen member states. Even applicants who meet all the national or Schengen criteria have no right to a visa: granting access to citizens of non-member states is a national prerogative, and member states are free to reject a visa application without providing any reasons or appeals procedure.
Nor are documentation requirements standardised: although a visa-facilitation agreement with Ukraine lists the documents that have to be submitted in support of an application, consular staff routinely ask for more.
The attitude of most consular staff, on instructions from their headquarters, is to view any visa applicant as a potential criminal, or at the very least as a potential overstayer. (Indeed, the typical ‘illegal immigrant’ is not someone who sneaks across a border in the dead of night but someone who enters the EU legally – often on a student visa or under visa-free arrangements for visits of up to 90 days – and then fails to leave when the authorisation expires.)
An assistant minister in the Ukrainian government alleges that staff at the Kiev consulate of an EU country solicited a bribe when he applied for a visa for a private visit. The incident took place in 2009, but nothing of substance has changed since then.
The European Commission says that issuing visas is a matter for the member states, and that it does not collect data on visas, or on visa-related complaints. Meanwhile, the member states say that they are simply implementing Schengen-wide rules.
This situation is not just an inconvenience for individuals; it has now reached the policy level. Earlier this year, the Commission and Turkey reached a deal on a re-admission agreement, a precondition for visa facilitation. But the Commission was unable to meet Turkey’s expectations that a visa-facilitation agreement would be negotiated in parallel, prompting Ankara to declare that it will not ratify the re-admission agreement until visa facilitation is on the cards.
Egemen Bag?is¸, Turkey’s chief negotiator with the EU, complained that it was “ridiculous” for the EU to lift visa requirements for countries such as Belize and Uruguay but to leave them in place for Turkey.
Turks and Ukrainians may be more fervent supporters of EU membership than either the Norwegians or the Swiss. But for now, the lack of legal avenues to travel to, let alone work and settle in, the EU means that they cannot even visit the EU.
At the end of 2009, the EU lifted visa requirements for citizens of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, and did the same for citizens of Albania and of Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Citizens of Kosovo, which is not recognised by all member states, still need visas to enter the EU.) This means that holders of biometric passports issued by these countries no longer need a visa for visits to the Schengen area of less than 90 days.
The border separating the EU from the Western Balkans has become a bit less forbidding, although living standards are still worlds apart. The difficult economic situation has made many citizens receptive to the empty promises of people-smugglers, who on one occasion delivered ethnic Albanians and Roma from Macedonia and Serbia directly to the door of Belgium’s federal asylum office in Brussels. Asylum applications from the two countries peaked in the fourth quarter of 2010, when 7,915 Serbian citizens and 3,435 Macedonians applied for asylum in the EU. (In February 2010, 1,230 Serbs applied for asylum, more than in the three preceding months.)
But applications have since sharply declined, after the EU threatened the two governments with an embarrassing re-imposition of visa requirements unless they brought the situation under control. Border police in the two countries have stepped up controls, and the authorities have launched information campaigns telling their citizens that they stand practically no chance of being recognised as refugees in the EU.
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