EU lifts visa restrictions for Serbia

BRUSSELS, BELGRADE -- The European Union (EU) has abolished visas for the citizens of Serbia traveling to the Schengen Area countries.

Tadić, Solana in Brussels today (Beta)
Tadić, Solana in Brussels today (Beta)

The decision was made today in Brussels by the EU Council of Ministers for Interior and Justice, and it will come into effect on December 19.

Serbian President Boris Tadić, along with Interior and Justice Ministers Ivica Dačić and Snežana Malović, was in Brussels this Monday, meeting with EU senior officials.

Beta reported ahead of the meetings today that a senior official of the presiding Swedish government stated that interior and justice ministers of the Union will amend regulation number 539/2001, stating that citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia will be on the "positive Schengen list."

It states that they will then be "freed of the obligation to have visas issued to them" by the EU, but will still be without the right to work in the 27 EU member-states.

The citizens included in the abolishing of the visa regime will be Serbian citizens, precluding those living in Kosovo, as well as citizens of Montenegro and Macedonia with biometric passports. They will be able to visit any country as tourists for three months at the most in any season of the year.

That means that three months after entering the territory of a country of the Schengen zone, they must end their stay, and wait three months before entering again for three months in a tourist capacity under the regime of free movement without border control.

The EU Ministerial Council was also to stress that "under resolution 1244 of the UN Security Council, those residing in Kosovo will have to ask for visas to travel in the EU," Beta stated, after gaining an insight into the draft decision.

It also stated that Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina are not included in this measure, as it was confirmed that they "have not fulfilled conditions from the visa liberalization agreement of the Western Balkans countries."

Serbian, EU officials react

President Boris Tadić said on Monday that Serbia's entry on the White Schengen List was the first step in its full EU integration.

"This is a practical and clear step towards European integration. Visa abolishment is not part of EU membership negotiations, but there can be no membership in the EU without visa liberalization," Tadić said, speaking at a joint press conference with European commissioners Jacques Barrot and Olli Rehn in Brussels.

Tadić pointed out that Serbia would begin its EU membership negotiations as soon as possible, and that he hoped for some great results soon.

He remarked that putting Serbia on the White Schengen List practically allowed it to return to where it was 20 years ago, when its citizens did not need visas to travel to Europe.

Tadić said he expected other Western Balkan countries would soon get visa liberalization as well, because that was a prerequisite for the region's political integration into the EU.

Commenting on the fact that the visa liberalization for Serbia did not refer to the people in Kosovo, Tadić said that Serbia viewed all Kosovo citizens as its own.

"Kosovo is Serbia's southern province, so the government in Belgrade will back any solution that would abolish visas for people in Kosovo, after removing any technical difficulties," he was quoted as saying.

In Belgrade, the Serbian government welcomed the decision of the European Union Council of Ministers for Interior and Justice.

This is a clear political signal confirming Serbia's European perspective, the government press office said in a statement.

The decision is a result of long endeavors to meet the conditions set out in the road map and constitutes a recognition of Serbia's progress in fighting corruption and organized crime, border management, improving safety of documents and respect of human rights, the release says.

It is also an encouragement and support to the steps Serbia has yet to take in order to join the European family, the government noted.

In Brussels, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn stated that the visa regime abolishment for Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia is a big step toward the EU integration of these countries.

This is an important day for those three countries and I hope that other countries in the western Europe will follow their footsteps, Rehn told a joint press conference with Vice President of the European Commission Jacques Barrot and President Boris Tadić.

Rehn pointed out that the visa liberalization is an important step that introduces the opportunity for the development of the civil society in these countries along their EU path.

Back in Belgrade, Swedish Ambassador to Serbia Krister Bringeus and head of the European Commission (EC) Delegation to Serbia Vincent Degert said that visa liberalization is an important step towards Serbia's membership in the European Union.

Today's decision is an important step towards Serbia's membership in the European Union in the future, Bringeus told a press conference following the EU decision earlier in the day to abolish visas for the citizens of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro.

"Visa liberalization is not a gift. It is a result of close cooperation between Brussels and Belgrade, of great endeavors of the European Commission and above all of hard work of the present Serbian government and Serbian President Boris Tadić personally," he said.

Degert said that visa liberalization will have a great influence of everyday life of the citizens of Serbia.

The key pre-condition for visa liberalization – biometric passports – was met, he said.

He pointed to two technical limitations – visa liberalization will not apply to owners of blue passports, or to Kosovo citizens, regardless of what kind of passports they have – biometric or old blue ones.

The European Commission expects Serbia to continue to abide by the agreement with the European Union, enforce strict border control and fight corruption and organized crime, Degert said.

"50 percent fulfilled, deserved lifting of visas"

Analyst Alexandra Stiegelmeier was quoted as saying earlier today that Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia deserve the have the visa regimes imposed on them abolished, "because they fulfilled all of the 50 necessary reform conditions in a short period of time".

“No one expected that these countries would be capable of implementing all these reforms in a period of a year and a half, but they did, and they will be rewarded now. What is most important is that the process showed that when clear conditions and clear goals and rewards are presented, the system of conditions being set by the EU functions well,” Stiegelmeier said.

“It is also important that the citizens of these three countries now have a much more positive stance towards the EU, and now have the sentiments that will make it easier for the governments of these countries to implement some less popular reforms that are needed,” she added.

“I believe that the EU is very carefully monitoring how the visa liberalization will be implemented in practice. That is why it is important for the citizens of these three countries to leave a good impression on the EU and citizens of the Union, and it is important for the governments to continue fulfilling the conditions of the road map towards EU integration,” she said.

“Otherwise, the EU will say that it was a mistake and that will have negative consequences, especially in the future enlargement of the Union and relations with these countries,” Stiegelmeier warned.