Page last updated at 16:34 GMT, Wednesday, 15 July 2009 17:34 UK

Serbs set for visa-free EU travel

Passport being stamped
Some Balkans citizens will still need visas to reach the EU

Citizens of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro should be allowed to travel to most EU nations without visas, the European Commission has proposed.

"This is a historic moment in our relations with countries of the Western Balkans," said EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Jacques Barrot.

The changes, if approved by all 27 EU members and the European Parliament, would apply from 1 January 2010.

It would mean travellers could visit all the countries in the Schengen zone.

The Schengen zone is made up of 25 European countries - the 27 EU members, minus the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus; plus three non-EU nations - Norway, Iceland and Switzerland.

Although Bulgaria and Romania are not yet in Schengen they do have visa-free arrangements with the EU, so they are also set to ease the travel rules for their Balkan neighbours, if they have not already done so unilaterally.

Crackdown ordered

The European Commission decided against making the same recommendation for Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo.

Mr Barrot said Albania and Bosnia had not been included largely because they were further behind on the introduction of biometric passports.

Before Balkan wars, a Yugoslav passport allowed visa-free travel to almost any country
After the wars, that changed in an attempt to stem the flow of refugees
Now up to 70% of Serbs do not have passports

The Commission said Macedonia had already met EU conditions, and that the lifting of restrictions on Serbia and Montenegro would depend on them making the necessary progress soon.

It should mean an end to the days of costly and cumbersome visa application for citizens of those countries, says the BBC's Mark Lowen in Belgrade.

The Commission said it hoped to lift visa requirements for Albania and Bosnia by the middle of next year if they met EU standards.

They have been urged to crack down on organised crime and corruption, and improve border-control procedures.

We feel like second-class European citizens
Nemanja, Belgrade student

However, the plan to offer Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro concessions ahead of Bosnia and Albania has been criticised by the Green group in the European Parliament, which says it could potentially deepen the region's ethnic divisions.

Macedonia has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005, but its accession is being held up by a dispute with neighbouring Greece over the country's name.

Montenegro and Serbia also are seeking membership.

Serbia's pro-Western government has been told its accession depends on the capture of the last two remaining major war crimes suspects, former Bosnian Serb army chief Gen Ratko Mladic and the former Croatian Serb leader, Goran Hadzic.

A senior Serbian government source told the BBC that Serbia would trumpet visa liberalisation as a sign of convergence with the EU, but that it feared support for the EU would drift if accession was not forthcoming.

Brussels is keen to offer visa concessions as a sign that Serbia is on the right path to further integration, says our correspondent.

In Belgrade, Serbs told the BBC they were eager for the rules to be eased.

Ana, a teacher from the southern Serbian city of Nis, voiced anger at the current restrictions. "If I want to go anywhere I like, why should I be stopped? I wanted to travel to Greece last summer, but because the application process would have taken so long, I ended up having to go again to Montenegro. It's so frustrating."

Nemanja, a student from Belgrade, said the hours of queuing at consular offices and piles of paperwork stopped people from even trying to apply. "We feel like second-class European citizens", he said.

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