Why the European Commission was right

The decision of the EU to lift visa requirements for Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, but not Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo last week caused quite a stir.

The Greens in the European Parliament, as well as some observers called the decision unfair, “hypocritical and morally abject”, suggesting that it is penalizing Bosnian Muslims victims of war crimes. While such talk might be tempting, it is simply wrong and does little to help either the reforms or the coming to terms with the past in Serbia or elsewhere.

Anybody who is working on and in the region has for a long time felt that the visa regime of the EU is counterproductive and certainly has hurt reforms. Thus any lifting of the visa regime should be welcome.

Second, the EU has always set out clear technical requirements to be fulfilled for the visa obligations to be lifted. This is conditionality at its best, clear technical requirements which can be fulfilled with sufficient political will. Most governments in the region have been insincere in their claim to help their citizens to travel freely over the years. Efforts to introduce new passports and the necessary legislation and other measures have been far too slow, considering the interest of many citizens to travel without the humiliation in front of EU embassies.  The EU has to insist on countries fulfilling the requirements it sets. It has been weak for some (which were arguably bad conditions), but if it relents just to be ‘nice’ to a country or to not leave anybody behind, why would any politician pass any necessary law anymore? Lowering conditions and requirements would hurt citizens across the region, not least in BiH–not in regard to visa free travel, but in regard to other reforms. Not including all countries at the same time does not mean leaving them behind. If Slovakia had not been lagging behind in the 1990s, there would have been no pressure to get rid of Vladimir Meciar and to begin serious reforms. Had been Slovakia given an easy ride early on, it probably would have been left behind at the end.

One argument put forth in the debate has been that it is mostly Bosniaks who would be left out from visa free travel and Croats already have Croatian passports and Serbs can or have Serbian passports. This is, however, as demagogic argument. First, Croatian passport holders are uneffected, so there is no change there. Second, there is little evidence that Bosnian Serbs have easy access to Serbian passports. According to a report in Danas, only 2,557 Bosnian citizens also have a Serbian passport. While this might be underestimating the real number of double citizens, there is little evidence to suggest that Bosnian Serbs have easy access to Serbian passports. Finally, if Serbia were to provide easy access to Bosnian Serbs, the EC could easily impose similar limitations to Serbian passport holders from Bosnia as there will be for Serbian passport holders from Kosovo.

Finally, I thus share my skepticism of the moral argument with ESI. Most importantly, I think it is important to move away from the talk of whether a country (or nation) should be ‘rewarded’ or ‘penalized’ for the war in the context of EU integration. This logic is not helpful for EU integration and runs counter the entire logic of the process. Germany was not an early participant of the integration process as a reward nor because France, Italy or Benelux were happy to integrate with a country which had barely come to terms with the past, but the logic of the integration process is to induce change through integration. Thus integration is not a ‘reward’ for having been good, but a mechanisms to prevent the reoccurred of war crimes and to reform a society so that it can come to terms with the crimes committed in its name. Translating past injustices into currency in the integration process is not only demeaning to the victims of the crimes, it also runs against the logic of EU integration. When President Kaczyński of Poland sought to increase the votes for Poland, arguing that the Poles lost in WW2 should be counted, this position was quickly criticized by all key European players as tasteless and inappropriate. What is the fundamental difference between Kaczyński‘s linking visa liberalization with war crimes? This should not be misunderstood to be a call for forgetting or ignoring the past and the crimes. However, they should not be linked to reforms and the process of EU integration.

Now it is up to Bosnian politicians to deliver, if they don’t the citizens will have an opportunity to change them in 2010…

3 Responses to Why the European Commission was right

  1. Pingback: A different view on BiH and the EU’s visa-free regime « Transitionland

    • Dear Mr. Bieber,

      I believe that the basic priciple of “Conditionality” of EU’s SOE-Policy is being exaggerated in this very issue.

      Why? The Visa-Policy shows the limits of this more or less reasonable approach of conditionality, also because we have Visa-Policies to other countries of this planet as well. As you know, the “technical” criterias that Mr. Rehn and Mr. Barrot pointed out not to be fullfilled on time by BiH, have not been fullfilled the very same day by several other countries that are already enjoying the freedom of travel to the European Union. Croatia only introduced biometrical passports on 1 July 2009. The very same day BiH started the 1st phase of biometrical passports. Switzerland will introduce biometrical passports only in spring 2010, but its citizens enjoy visa-free travel, of course. The police system in Mexico is with hundreds of different police organisations quite heterogenous, but its citizens enjoy visa-free travel. Honduras is just facing a putsch, but visa-free travel still exists.

      These examples show that there is a political room for manoveur in defining the criterias for visa-free travel to the European Union. The freedom of travel is not a “technical” decision, it is a fundamentally political act. The European Union should make use of their political room for manoveur, without harming the priciple of conditionality in its regional approach. So far, we are facing double standards in the visa-policy of the European Union.

      It is still unclear until which day a big part of the citizens of BiH will have to wait for a travel to the European Union – six more months, one more year, two more years? As the film directress, Jasmila Zbanic, put it (http://www.deblokada.ba/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=46&Itemid=37): The European Commission is just degrading the value of the passport of BiH, one of the “rare symbols of unity of today’s BiH.” It is remarkable that the Serbian Minister for the Interior stated on 15 July 2009 that there will be “no problem” in issuing Serbian biometrical passports in Republika Srpska. ( http://www.danas.org/archive/news/20090715/500/500.html?id=1777647 )

      At the end of the day, in multiethnic cities and communities in BiH this political approach of the EC is creating more problems than it solves. You can call this concern demagogic or not. I would call it a rational analysis.

      I kindly invite everybody to read, distribute and/or to sign an online-appeal protesting against this Visa-Policy of the European Commission: http://www.balkangoeseurope.eu .

      The call for signatures was signed by Ambassador Wolfgang Petritsch (Former High Representative to BiH), Christian Schwarz-Schilling (Former High Representative to BiH), Hans Koschnik (Former EU-Representative to Mostar), MEP Doris Pack, MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit, MdB Marieluise Beck, Hans Christian Schmid, Sasa Stanisic, Bärbel Bohley, Natasa Kandic, Nenad Popovic and many others.

      This year is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Twenty years ago, the East and the West of Europe could start to unify. Having the change of the travel laws on 9 November 1989 in mind, 1 January 2010 should also become a historical date for all citizens of Bosnia and Hercegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Kosovo and Albania have to follow as fast as possible.

      It is not freedom that creates instability, but the suppression of freedom.

      All the best,
      Tobias Bütow, Berlin

  2. bus pictures says:

    I think EU should lift visa requirements for all European countries. Europe withouth borders…

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