What is the Commission presenting today?
Today, the Commission is reporting on the results of its monitoring of the EU visa-free regime with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia as well as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. This year's report includes a more detailed and systematic follow-up of the actions taken to address the recommendations the Commission made in the third report, published in July 2020. For the countries that obtained visa exemption less than 7 years ago (Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine), the report also provides a more detailed assessment of other actions taken to ensure the continuous fulfilment of the benchmarks.
What is the general assessment?
Overall, visa-free movement continues to bring positive economic, social and cultural benefits to EU Member States and partner countries. The Commission considers that all countries concerned have taken action to address the recommendations made in the previous report and continue to fulfil the visa liberalisation requirements. However, all 8 countries need to continue to take further measures to address different concerns related to the fight against organised crime, financial fraud and money laundering, as well as addressing high-level corruption and irregular migration. Countries concerned should also take action to effectively phase out investor citizenship schemes or refrain from systematically granting citizenship by investment.
It is imperative that the reform process undertaken during the visa liberalisation negotiations is sustained and that the countries do not backtrack on their achievements.
What is a visa liberalisation requirement (benchmark)?
While 61 countries around the world benefit from visa-free travel to the EU, in some cases, visa free access can be decided following bilateral negotiations, called 'visa liberalisation dialogues'. They are based on the progress made by the countries concerned in implementing major reforms in areas such as strengthening the rule of law, combatting organised crime, corruption and migration management and improving administrative capacity in border control and security of documents.
Visa liberalisation dialogues were successfully conducted between the EU and the 8 countries covered by today's report. On this basis, the EU granted visa-free travel to nationals of these countries; for Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia in December 2009, for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina at the end 2010, for Moldova in April 2014, for Georgia in March 2017 and for Ukraine in June 2017.
These dialogues were built upon 'Visa Liberalisation Roadmaps' for the Western Balkan countries and 'Visa Liberalisation Action Plans' for the Eastern Partnership countries.
During the visa liberalisation dialogues, the Commission closely monitored the implementation of the Roadmaps and Action Plans through regular progress reports. These progress reports were then transmitted to the European Parliament and the Council and are publicly accessible (see here for the Western Balkan countries and here for Eastern Partnership countries).
Why does the report only assess 8 countries out of all those which have visa-free regimes with the EU?
The report only focuses on countries that have successfully completed a visa liberalisation dialogue: Albania; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Montenegro; North Macedonia; Serbia; Georgia; Moldova and Ukraine.
Under the EU rules, the Commission is responsible for reporting to the European Parliament and the Council on the continuous fulfilment of visa liberalisation requirements by non-EU countries which have successfully concluded a visa liberalisation dialogue less than seven years ago.The Eastern Partnership countries have been visa-exempt for less than 7 years, therefore the Commission is required to report on the continuous fulfilment of the benchmarks. As regards visa-free countries in the Western Balkans, which are visa exempt since 2009-2010 the report focuses on the follow-up to the specific recommendations the Commission made in the 3rd report adopted in July 2020, and assesses the actions taken to address them. An assessment of aspects related to the visa liberalisation benchmarks for the Western Balkans is included in the European Commission's annual Enlargement Package.
What is the Commission doing to help partner countries to address organised crime and irregular migration, including in the context of the coronavirus?
The Commission, EU agencies and Member States are stepping up operational cooperation to address both organised crime and irregular migration with the countries assessed in the report.
Partner countries are encouraged to actively participate in all relevant EU Policy Cycle/EMPACT operational action plans, undertaken to fight serious and organised crime. The EU-Western Balkans Joint Action Plan on Counter-Terrorism is an important roadmap and evidence of our strengthened cooperation to address key priority actions in the area of security, including the prevention of all forms of radicalisation and violent extremism, and challenges posed by returning foreign terrorist fighters and their families.
The EU has signed a number of Status Agreements with Western Balkan countries on border management cooperation. The agreements allow the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) to carry out deployments and joint operations on the territory of neighbouring non-EU countries. A number of agreements have been successfully implemented and the remaining agreements should be swiftly finalised.
Cooperation between Frontex and partner countries takes place though different level working arrangements, and includes cooperation on return operations as well as information exchange, sharing best practices and conducting joint risk analyses.
The Commission is also providing significant financial support to partner countries to support capacity building and the law enforcement reforms. As a broader response to the coronavirus, the Commission is redirecting assistance from the Instrument of Pre-Accession and European Neighbourhood Instrument respectively for Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership partners for immediate needs and to tackle socio-economic consequences. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership partners have put in place wide range of measures and repatriated their nationals, including from the EU and the Schengen area.
What are the next steps?
The report sets out actions to be taken by the partner countries to ensure the sustainability of reforms. Close monitoring will also continue as a continuous and ongoing process, including through senior officials meetings as well as through the regular Justice, Freedom and Security subcommittee meetings and dialogues between the EU and visa-free countries - and for the Western Balkans countries, the regular enlargement reports, including, where relevant, EU accession negotiations.
What is the revised visa suspension mechanism?
The visa suspension mechanism was first introduced as part of the EU's visa policy in 2013. The mechanism gives a possibility to temporarily suspend the visa exemption for a non-EU country, for a short period of time, in case of a substantial increase in irregular migration from the partner countries.
The European Parliament and the Council adopted a revised mechanism which entered into force in 2017. Under the revised mechanism, the Commission can trigger the suspension mechanism, whereas previously only Member States could do so. In addition, the revised mechanism introduced an obligation for the Commission to:
-monitor the continuous fulfilment of the visa liberalisation requirements which were used to assess to grant visa free travel to a non-EU country as a result of a successful conclusion of a visa liberalisation dialogue;
-report regularly to the European Parliament and to the Council, at least once a year, for a period of seven years after the date of entry into force of visa liberalisation for that non-EU country.
The new measures allow the European Union to react quicker and in a more flexible manner when faced with a sudden increase in irregular migration or in internal security risks relating to the nationals of a particular non-EU country.
When can the suspension mechanism be triggered?
The suspension mechanism can be triggered in the following circumstances:
-a substantial increase (more than 50%) in the number people arriving irregularly from visa-free countries, including people found to be staying irregularly, and persons refused entry at the border;
-a substantial increase (more than 50%) in the number of asylum applications with from countries low recognition rate (around 3-4%);
-a decline in cooperation on readmission;
-an increased risk to the security of Member States.
The Commission can also trigger the mechanism in case certain requirements are no longer met as regards the fulfilment of the visa liberalisation benchmarks by non-EU countries that have gone through a visa liberalisation dialogue.
Is the visa suspension mechanism effective?
While the visa suspension mechanism has not resulted in the suspension of any visa exemption, its existence has prompted important reforms in visa-free non-EU countries when it comes to migration management, security, rule of law and human rights.
Today's report on the effectiveness of the visa suspension mechanism and on the delegation of power under such mechanism concludes that this effect has been particularly relevant in the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership, where progress under the visa liberalisation benchmarks and the follow-up to the Commission recommendations has continued beyond the successful completion of the visa liberalisation dialogues and long after the start of the visa exemption.
Positive results include reforms and cooperation in the areas of migration and security, such as cooperation in the fight against terrorism, tighter checks at border crossing points, or the organisation of awareness-raising campaigns on the rights and obligations of visa-free travel in order to prevent abuses of the visa-free regime.
Although this progress cannot be attributed to the visa suspension mechanism only, the mechanism has provided an additional incentive.
The possibility of a swift temporary and partial reintroduction of the visa requirement has possibly also deterred non-EU countries from continuing to implement policies that might pose a risk of a negative impact on their visa-free regimes with the EU. This result is visible when it comes to investor citizenship schemes, with Moldova having terminated its investor citizenship scheme in 2020 and Montenegro having decided not to extend its scheme beyond the end of 2021.
For More Information
Press release: Visa liberalisation: Commission reports on continued fulfilment of requirements by Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries