Controversy over European Parliament vote on visa requirements
The European Parliament has approved revisions of visa regulations seen in some quarters as opening the way for reimposing visa requirements for nationals of countries such as the United States and Canada that require visas from citizens of some EU states.
The vote also has raised concern among those who see it as enabling the EU to reinstate visa requirements for citizens of non-EU countries in the Western Balkans, who currently do not require visas to enter the countries of the 28-member bloc.
After the September 12 vote, which was 328 in favour, 257 against, with 46 abstentions, the European Parliament said that under the new rules, the EU would be able to temporarily suspend its visa-free travel arrangements with third countries to halt substantial and sudden increases in irregular migrant numbers or unfounded asylum requests, “but only as a last resort”.
“The reciprocity principle that a third country benefitting from an EU visa waiver must extend the same treatment to EU citizens is a key feature of the EU’s common visa policy,” Spanish centre-right MEP and civil liberties committee rapporteur Agustín Díaz de Mera told the European Parliament during the September 12 debate.
The amended EU visa regulation deals with third countries that persist in requiring EU citizens to obtain visas, even though their own citizens are exempt from EU visa requirements, the European Parliament said.
“This mechanism, which was strengthened by MEPs in negotiations with the Council, should enable the EU to put more pressure on certain third countries to obey the visa reciprocity rule,” the EP said.
The US, for example, currently requires visas for EU citizens from Bulgaria, Cyprus, Romania and Poland, and Canada requires them for those from the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania.
The visa regulation now also includes a “suspension mechanism” to allow the EU to reimpose visa requirements temporarily in emergencies.
Visa waivers could be temporarily suspended “in emergency situation(s), as a last resort”, in which a “substantial and sudden increase, over a six month period”, in numbers of irregular migrants, unfounded asylum requests or rejected readmission applications had been detected, says the text.
EU countries facing an emergency situation would have to notify the European Commission, which would assess the possible need to suspend visa-free travel rules for nationals of a given third country. In doing so, it would have to take account of factors such as the number of member states affected, the overall impact of the increases on the migratory situation in the EU and the consequences of a suspension for the EU’s external relations.
If the European Commission were to decide that action were needed, then it would suspend the visa waiver for six months. This would be done via an “implementing act”, of which the European Parliament would have to be informed.
The change to the visa regulations will come into effect 24 months after being published in the EU’s Official Journal.
The EU lifted visa requirements for citizens of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia in December 2009, and for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 2010. Since then, however, Serbia and Macedonia are at the top of the list of European countries that are sources of asylum-seekers. Against this background, there have been warnings from the EU that visas could be re-introduced for countries that fail to reduce the number of asylum-seekers in the EU.
Criticism of the European Parliament vote came from socialist Slovenian MEP Tanja Fajon, who said that approval of the changes meant that “we are seriously compromising the future of visa and neighbourhood policy of the European Union”.
She said that the mechanism for the temporary suspension of visa-free regime is a “potentially dangerous and a harmful measure, especially for the Western Balkan countries”.
A possible freeze of visa-travel could have very harmful consequences for the enlargement process. “It would further strengthen anti-European sentiments and intolerance towards minorities, which are today most frequent asylum seekers. The Western Balkan countries should otherwise improve conditions for Roma, although they are, frankly speaking, better integrated into society in Serbia and Macedonia, than in some member states of the European Union.”
There is no direct threat today for the reintroduction of visas for one or more countries of the Western Balkans, Fajon said. She said that the number of false asylum seekers “is still significant, however lower than last year. European governments therefore will unlikely have a reason to immediately activate the mechanism. The hazard is the nationalist and populist forces in Europe, which could exploit the mechanism as a political tool to gain domestic political support.”
She said that she also was concerned that the European Parliament, by adopting the reciprocity mechanism, runs the risk of action of the Commission before Court.
“We have caused a complete legal chaos. I cannot imagine the EU imposing visa obligation for the citizens of the United States of America or Canada if one or more EU member states will continue to be exempted from the visa waiver programs. We have taken on changes to the reciprocity mechanism, which are simply illegal. Reciprocity will never be activated, as European governments have already noted in a statement that they will give priority to relations with strategic partners.”
De Mera said, “The suspension mechanism does not target specific third countries. It would provide a general framework for the future, and could be triggered for any country whose nationals are eligible to travel visa-free to the EU. The amendments to the visa regulation aim to preserve the integrity of the visa liberalisation process and ensure that visa-free travel to the EU does not lead to abuses”.