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Last Updated: Friday, 7 July 2006, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Balkan festival bangs on Brussels' door
By Neil Arun
BBC News, Novi Sad

Rajko Bozic of Citizens' Pact, a group campaigning for freedom of movement in Europe
Rajko Bozic: "controls insulting"

Dusk descends over the River Danube and the volume of music pumping out of two dozen sound-systems soars steadily.

Among the revellers attending the annual Exit festival in Serbia this year are an unprecedented number of visitors from western Europe - English, French and German voices ring out above the clamour.

Freedom of movement campaigner Rajko Bozic welcomes the new influx - because, he says, it demonstrates just how unfair western European visa restrictions against his fellow Serbs are.

While Exit brings an ever-increasing number of foreign revellers to the Balkans, Mr Bozic says EU travel restrictions on people from the region have become an insult.

The visa rules, he says, are "beyond irony - they are a form of sarcasm".

Most of the young people at Exit are from the once-warring republics of the former Yugoslavia.

If you can't travel, you're isolated. And such a situation breeds xenophobia
Vlado Brasanac
Journalist, B92 TV station

Many of them are now united by anger at Brussels, the seat of the EU and in their view, the hostile gatekeeper to an exclusive club.

Gathering to enjoy the very bands and DJs adored by their counterparts across the world, the youth of the Balkans want to know why the EU appears intent on keeping them - and their countries - out.

And the EU's visa policy, in their view, does more than trample on individual freedoms - it holds hostage the fate of entire nations.

As Vlado Brasanac, a journalist with Serbia's B92 TV station puts it: "If you can't travel, you're isolated. And such a situation breeds xenophobia."

Abstractions

Serbia and its neighbours from the former Yugoslavia face a crisis of faith on the eastern fringes of the EU.

Map showing Serbia

Their governments remain formally committed to entering the bloc but none except Slovenia, which joined in 2004, has satisfied the criteria for entry.

Moreover, they face powerful domestic opposition from the right-wing forces that came to the fore during the devastating wars of the 1990s.

Festival-goers such as Olja Homa argue that allowing more Serbs to travel to the EU could win over those at home who oppose EU entry.

Until more people from the region have the freedom to travel west, she says, the EU will remain an abstraction in their minds - and they will have to take their leaders' words for what it represents.

"More people need to go there, to see for themselves what life is like and make up their own minds about it."

'Massive fax'

Olja Homa and Rajko Bozic represent Citizens' Pact, a group campaigning for freedom of movement in Europe, and one of several non-governmental organisations using Exit as a springboard.

Banner by campaign group calling for freedom of movement
Campaigners want Balkan residents to have freedom to travel in Europe
Members of another organisation, manning a stall next to a stage playing techno music, describe the indignity of trying to visit the EU.

"We waited three weeks to get a visa to visit Brussels," says Mladen Radesic of ESTIEM, a Europe-wide organisation representing engineering and management students.

The group had received an official invitation to take part in a competition in Belgium, Mr Radesic says.

But over the course of three visits to the Belgian embassy in Belgrade, they were asked to provide countless details confirming the purpose of their visit.

"The final fax we took to the embassy was more than five metres long," he says.

As well as paying in time and money for the visits to Belgrade, the group that eventually visited Belgium says it also paid over the odds for airline tickets, purchased at the last minute after the visas had been secured.

'Schengen Wall'

Such experiences are commonplace for people from the region trying to visit the EU, according to Rajko Bozic.

"Our aim is to bring down the last wall dividing Europe - the Schengen wall," he says, referring to the Schengen visa, required by most travellers from the region.

EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn plays football at Exit
Olli Rehn told the crowds he hoped to see Serbia's EU entry festival

The notion that visa restrictions can protect the EU from immigrants is rubbish, Mr Bozic says. "You just need to look at the foreigners on the streets of the London to see that."

Carmona Jesus, a spokesman dealing with justice and home affairs at the Council of Europe in Brussels, says the visa restrictions are not driven by economic or political concerns - they are necessary to guarantee security within the EU.

The EU, he says, "is a space where people can move freely. And for that, we need to have secure borders".

The EU's enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, appearing at the Exit festival's opening night, drew cheers from the crowd when he said: "I hope in a few years' time to be invited to Serbia's entry festival."

'Chill out'

The young cosmopolitan festival-goers of the Balkans may be instinctive Europhiles - but judging by the anger aroused by the visa restrictions, their belief in Brussels is wearing thin.

Many are envious of their parents' generation. Coming of age in communist Yugoslavia, it enjoyed a freedom of movement unique among citizens of the former Iron Curtain.

"We need to visit the EU," says Olja Homa, smiling. "We have forgotten what it's like just to be normal - to chill out."


Do you think the EU should ease restrictions on visitors from the former Yugoslav republics?

The EU should definitely ease their restrictions. Having been to Exit Festival two years ago and meeting young Serbs it was clear they are desperate to learn and broaden their horizons and to look to the future.
Mags, Glasgow, Scotland

I think that the differences between the West and Balkan countries have narrowed so much that it now renders laughable some of the border restrictions imposed on Eastern Europe. However, having travelled within the Balkans recently, I believe that Balkan countries should start the ball rolling by relaxing or even eliminating the restrictions between the Balkan states.
Chris Huff, Bologna, Italy

Absolutely. Citizens of many countries do not need visas for tourism in the EU, and any country that is in the process of joining the EU should certainly be granted the same privileges.
S Harvie, Hinckley, UK

Young people get an affiliation for places when they see them so yes definitely otherwise we are risking future hostility. Also, why not, the troubles were over a long time ago now. People are less likely to dislike places that they can feel part of. As a young person, as soon as I saw there were cheap flights to countries such as Lithuania, they automatically changed in my mind from being a scary place to a friendly place just because I can go there if I want to.
Martha, London

The restrictions against Serbia should be immediately lifted. If Poles are allowed to roam the EU freely and migrate to UK in such great numbers, Serbs should be definitely be allowed to visit at least. It just seems so unfair that after so many changes they've made in the last few years we still keep them isolated.
John, London, UK

Serbians should stop complaining about difficulties getting into the EU until they sort out their national life, hand over their war criminals, address their pernicious identification of themselves as victims, and start atoning for Srebrenica. Serbia is a democratic state.
Andy, London, UK

I have been to both Exit and Guca music festivals for the last three years. I have met so many talented young people over the years and they always say that they feel ostracized by the European Union. They are Europeans also, has this been forgotten?
Sova, Bristol, England

Of course the EU should ease restrictions on visitors from the former Yugoslavia. My family and I are close friends with a family in Kosovo who would benefit enormously from visiting UK, and who we would like to help. But we can't realistically invite them here, even if we offer to pay for their tickets, as they won't get a visa. We can't even bring their 17-year-old son over for the summer to improve his English. It's sad.
Ian, Oxted, UK




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