Page last updated at 09:07 GMT, Wednesday, 15 July 2009 10:07 UK

Q&A: EU visas for Balkans

The European Commission has recommended visa-free travel in the EU for citizens of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro.

The BBC's Mark Lowen in Belgrade looks at the issue in more detail.

When did visa restrictions come into effect for countries of the Western Balkans?

Polish passport control (file pic)
The Schengen accord removed many passport checks within the EU

Before the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, a Yugoslav passport was a prized possession: it allowed visa-free travel to almost any country in the world. But when the region descended into conflict, first in Croatia, then in Bosnia-Hercegovina, all that changed. With economic sanctions came visa restrictions, imposed first in October 1991, to stem the flow of migrants fleeing the war.

Are restrictions still in place for all countries of the region?

No. Visa restrictions for Croatia and Slovenia were lifted soon after they achieved independence from Yugoslavia.

Slovenia became a member of the European Union in 2004, so now benefits from freedom of movement within the EU. Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Albania all completed Visa Facilitation Agreements with the EU at the end of 2007, with a view to lifting the restrictions that remain for all of those countries.

Which countries are set to have their visa restrictions lifted?

On Wednesday, the European Commission recommended that Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia be placed on the Schengen White List, allowing their citizens visa-free travel to all EU member states, plus Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.

The only exceptions are the UK and Ireland, which have opted out of the Schengen agreement. The proposal then needs to be voted on by the justice ministers of all 27 EU states, although a unanimous decision is not required. Visa-free travel would then begin for these countries from 1 January 2010.

What conditions needed to be met to achieve this goal?

All countries were given a visa roadmap in 2008 stipulating certain conditions, including implementing biometric passports, tightening border controls and improving the fight against corruption and organised crime.

Macedonia is thought to have already met all the criteria, while the Commission believes that Serbia and Montenegro will fulfil final requirements by the end of the year. Bosnia and Albania do not yet qualify, but it is thought they may do so by later in 2010.

And what about Kosovo?

Kosovo has not been recognised by all 27 EU countries, although it is in negotiations to have visa restrictions lifted. It has not yet met the criteria and is thought to be lagging behind Bosnia and Albania in this respect.

Pressure has been placed on Belgrade to stop issuing Serbian passports to Kosovan citizens, since they could unjustly benefit from Serbia's visa-free regime. But by doing so, it would imply Serbia's recognition of Kosovo as an independent country - something Belgrade has said it will never do. This is a technicality that is still being worked out with authorities in both Belgrade and Pristina and it is thought it will be resolved before the restrictions are lifted.

How important is the lifting of visa restrictions to normal citizens?

Very. The appetite for European Union expansion has waned considerably over the last few months, due in part to the impact of the global recession and also to continuing disputes between Western Balkan countries.

But Brussels is keen to offer a significant gesture as a sign that they are on the right path to further integration. And for ordinary people, not having to enter into a lengthy and costly visa application process would be a huge relief.

Up to 70% of Serbs do not even have passports and the authorities here are keen to encourage a more open, international perspective among the population. And for Serbia's President Boris Tadic it is a significant boost. He made visa liberalisation one of his pledges in the presidential campaign last year. Failing to achieve it could have severely weakened his position.

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