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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 September 2007, 17:45 GMT 18:45 UK
EU eases visa regime with Balkans
By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Brussels

Queuing outside the Austrian Embassy in Belgrade. File photo
Getting an EU visa is no easy matter for many Serbs
The EU has signed visa agreements with five Balkan countries, making it cheaper and easier for their citizens to travel through much of Europe.

The deals with Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are expected to come into force in January.

The Balkan nations have complained that strict EU visa rules have confined them to a ghetto at the heart of Europe.

The five nations also agreed to take back illegal immigrants who reach the EU through the Balkans.

Visa-free talks

Under the agreements, some, including students, business people and journalists, will find it easier to get visas, for which they will continue to pay about 35 euros (24), rather than the standard cost which is almost double.

Interior ministers from the five Balkan countries welcomed the move as a further step on their path towards EU membership.

But with strong resistance from countries like Germany, it has taken years to get here and it may taken even longer to achieve visa-free travel.

While talks on scrapping visas could start soon, EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini made clear the outcome depended on how effectively the Balkan nations kept their promise to deal with illegal migrants.

He also called for stricter border controls and the introduction of safe passports with biometric features.

The agreements will only apply to the Schengen border-free area, which currently includes 15 EU countries, but is likely to be joined by nine more by the end of the year.



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