European Union interior ministers are to be asked at a meeting on October 25 2012 to consider revoking the Schengen visa exemption for citizens of Serbia and Macedonia, a move reportedly backed by five EU countries worried by sharp increases in asylum applications from the two Western Balkans states, reports say.
Reports of the move prompted a sharp reaction from Serbian prime minister Ivica Dačić, who said on October 14 that the reintroduction of visa requirements for travelling to the Schengen area would be a punishment for Serbian citizens, who are not responsible for the issue of false asylum seekers.
Citizens of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro were given Schengen visa exemption in December 2009. The following year, Schengen visa exemption was given to citizens of Albania and Bosnia.
However, the exemptions have led to a continuing saga about asylum applications being filed by people from these countries, with Albania initially leading the field in hitting headlines with soaring increases in such applications.
In May 2011, the European Commission proposed a mechanism that could be used as a last-resort to suspend Schengen visa-free exemptions for countries that are not part of Schengen. The measure was designed to be used in the cases of countries consistently failing to keep to their side of the deal. The core of the issue, then and now, is abuse of the asylum system by people submitting applications to take advantage of compensation for asylum seekers, even their applications are not in good faith because it is certain that they would be rejected.
Already in October 2011, Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski issued an assurance to the EU that his country had acted to sharply reduce the number of Macedonian nationals submitting asylum applications in Western European countries.
However, such assurances – not only from Macedonia – have not resulted in the issue going away.
Complicating matters is that Schengen has been a bone of contention among EU institutions. In June 2012, a row broke out between the European Parliament and other EU institutions after the Parliament’s role in Schengen was trimmed back to only a consultative role.
At the same meeting on June 7 2012, the European Council empowered the restoration of border controls by Schengen member states facing influxes of illegal immigrants. However, this move has not completed the round of approval by all EU institutions.
Now, October 2012 is again seeing moves that could mean the removal of the Schengen visa exemption for Serbians and Macedonians.
Media reports quoting diplomatic sources in Brussels said that the backers of a reintroduction of Schengen visa requirements for citizens of Serbia and Macedonia included Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Germany’s interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has gone public on the issue.
“The increasing abuse of the asylum system is not acceptable … The huge inflow of Serbian and Macedonian citizens must be stopped immediately,” Friedrich said on October 12.
The top-selling Bild daily quoted Friedrich as saying: “Visa-free travel must not lead to abuse of the asylum rules. This will strain the readiness of Germans to help the truly needy and persecuted.”
News agency Reuters said that the number of Serbian asylum applicants in Germany increased threefold in September 2012 from the previous month while asylum applications by citizens of Macedonia increased by 70 per cent over the same period.
On October 14, Serbian media quoted prime minister Dačić as saying that should the Schengen visa-free exemption be abolished, “I think that it would seriously affect ties between Serbia and the EU”.
He said that the issue of false asylum seekers could not simply go away overnight because it is mainly an economic issue. Nor could it be solved by resorting to repressive measures, because Serbia would then be accused of violating human and minority rights. This latter point was a reference to figures showing that most false asylum claims come from Serbians and Macedonians of ethnic Roma origin.
Dačić, quoted by Serbian news agencies, said that the issue of false asylum seekers could be resolved in cooperation with the EU member states by investing in the electronic surveillance of borders andSerbia’s balanced economic growth.
In spite of financial problems,Serbia had managed to reduce the number of false asylum seekers, Dačić said.