EUObserver By Nikolaj Nielsen July 9, 2013
BRUSSELS – The European Parliament’s lead negotiator has reached an agreement with member states to temporarily reimpose visa requirements for people coming from the Western Balkans.
“The [European] commission is free to decide whether or not the visa will become suspended, the key point is that this is not something that is compulsory for the commission,” Spanish conservative MEP Agustin Diaz de Mera, the parliament’s point man in the talks, said on Monday (8 July).
Short-stay visa requirements for the EU were recently lifted for five Balkan states, but an upsurge of reportedly unfounded asylum demands from the region prompted member states last year to pressure the European Commission to tackle the problem.
Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia saw their visa requirements to enter the EU lifted in December 2009. Albania and Bosnia followed a year later in December 2010.
Mera reached a compromised text with member states in late June after two-year-long negotiations on an existing file to amend the visa regulation which would allow, among other measures, the commission to re-impose visas under certain conditions.
Mera says the latest text has the backing of the right-leaning and liberal groups in the parliament.
But Slovenian socialist MEP Tanja Fajon said it is “not balanced or a good compromise.”
She said it strips the parliament of oversight and power to scrutinise decisions that allow member states to implement the restrictions.
“There is a growing pressure in the European Union member states to reintroduce visas from some of the countries in the Western Balkans and this growing pressure led us in the direction where we [European Parliament] will give our powers away,” she told EUobserver.
She said removing parliament’s co-decision powers on visa policies would “open the Pandora box” on other types of legislation.
Fajon also took issue with allowing member states to review seven years of data on asylum seeker demands when assessing visa exemptions of Western Balkan countries.
“We should have three years to avoid targeting these [Western Balkan] countries,” she said.
The vast majority of asylum seeker demands to Europe come from the Western Balkans, although fewer than five percent are granted refuge.
A report out on Monday by the Malta-based European Asylum Support Office, notes a 49 percent increase in Western Balkan applicants in 2012 peaking at above 10,000 in October alone, before dropping sharply in the following months.
EASO says the peak of applications is consistent with a seasonal trend since the EU’s statistical office Eurostat started collecting the data five years ago. Each year registers a large peak in October and a smaller peak in March.
The escape from poverty, racism, and the chance of receiving temporary financial support or housing in the target member states are among the possible pull factors, though EASO is set to issue a separate report later in the year with a more detailed analysis into why so many people from the Western Balkans seek asylum in Europe.
Taken altogether, the Western Balkans accounted for some 53,000 applications compared to the overall 335,365 total applicants for international protection in the EU in 2012.
The Western Balkan number is higher than the combined applicants from war-torn Syria and Afghanistan.
The EASO report notes some member states, such as Italy and Hungary, did not detect an increase of asylum demands from the region despite the visa-free regime.
However, the United Kingdom, which still requires a visa, saw a sharp increase in applicants from the Western Balkans.
Meanwhile, the EU’s latest member Croatia is likely to draw more demands but will be unlikely to cope given its poor asylum procedures, inadequate reception conditions, and low capacity, says the Brussels-based Jesuit Refugee Service-Europe (JRS).
“That so many people are using the Balkans route – be they Kosovars, Macedonians, Syrians or Afghans – to migrate to Europe means that Croatia will likely be dealing with higher numbers in the near future, and currently they don’t have to capacity to do so,” said Philip Amaral, a JRS advocacy and communications coordinator.
He said Croat authorities are more likely to reinforce their borders with extra guards rather than invest in improving the overall asylum system.
“In this way the Croatia government may be inadvertently establishing yet another road block for protection of seekers, making it harder for them to seek safety in the EU,” noted Amaral.
He said similar security moves have been made elsewhere in the EU like in Greece and Italy.
Member states will review the parliament’s position on the visa suspension clause in the regulation next week. If they agree on the parliament’s text, the bill will be voted on in the plenary session in the start of September.