What is the Commission presenting today?
Today, the Commission is reporting on the continued fulfilment of the visa liberalisation requirements by Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia as well as Eastern Partnership countries: Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The report continues to cover those countries that have successfully concluded a visa liberalisation dialogue.
Today's report is the third assessment carried out under the strengthened visa suspension mechanism for the 8 countries benefitting from visa-free travel (for stays of up to 90 days in any 180-day period) under the visa liberalisation scheme.
What is the general assessment?
The Commission considers that all 8 countries continue to fulfil the visa liberalisation requirements. However, all countries need to continue acting in various areas to ensure continuous fulfilment of the benchmarks.
While efforts have been made by the 8 countries to continue to meet the visa liberalisation benchmarks and to fulfil the Commission's recommendations of December 2018, the countries assessed need to take further measures to address different concerns related to fighting organised crime, addressing high-level corruption and irregular migration of citizens from partner countries.
It is imperative that the reform process undertaken during the visa liberalisation negotiations is sustained and that the countries do not backtrack on their achievements.
What is a visa liberalisation requirement (benchmark)?
While 61 countries around the world benefit from visa-free travel to the EU, in some cases, visa free access can be decided in bilateral negotiations, called 'visa liberalisation dialogues'. They are based on the progress made by the countries concerned in implementing major reforms in areas such as strengthening the rule of law, combating organised crime, corruption and irregular migration and improving administrative capacity in border control and security of documents.
Visa liberalisation dialogues were successfully conducted between the EU and the 8 countries covered by today's report. They resulted in the granting of visa-free travel to citizens of these countries; for Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia in December 2009, for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina at the end 2010, for Moldova in April 2014, for Georgia in March 2017 and for Ukraine in June 2017.
These dialogues were built upon 'Visa Liberalisation Roadmaps' for the Western Balkan countries and 'Visa Liberalisation Action Plans' for the Eastern Partnership countries.
During the visa liberalisation dialogues, the Commission closely monitored the implementation of the Roadmaps and Action Plans through regular progress reports. These progress reports were transmitted to the European Parliament and the Council and are publicly accessible.
Why does the report only assess 8 countries out of all those which have visa-free regimes with the EU?
The report only focuses on those countries which have successfully completed a visa liberalisation dialogue: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine.
Under the EU rules, the Commission is responsible for the monitoring of the continuous fulfilment of visa liberalisation requirements by third countries which have successfully concluded a visa liberalisation dialogue, and reporting on the developments to the European Parliament and the Council.
Why are only some policy areas assessed?
While the Commission is monitoring the continuous fulfilment of all visa liberalisation requirements, today we are not reporting on benchmarks that are considered to be stable.The report focuses only on specific benchmarks identified for each country, where further monitoring and action needs to be taken in order to ensure the sustainability of the reforms and the continued compliance.
What is the Commission doing to help partner countries to address organised crime and irregular migration, including in the context of the coronavirus?
The Commission, EU agencies and Member States, are stepping up operational cooperation to address both organised crime and irregular migration with the countries assessed in the report.
Partner countries are encouraged to actively participate in all relevant EU Policy Cycle/EMPACT operational action plans, undertaken to fight serious and organised crime. The EU-Western Balkans Joint Action Plan on Counter-Terrorism is an important roadmap and evidence of our strengthened cooperation to address key priority actions in the area of security, including the prevention of all forms of radicalisation and violent extremism, and challenges posed by returning foreign terrorist fighters and their families.
The EU has signed a number of Status Agreements with Western Balkan countries on border management cooperation. The agreements allow the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) to carry out deployments and joint operations on the territory of neighbouring non-EU countries. A number of agreements have been successfully implemented and the remaining agreements should be swiftly finalised.
Cooperation between Frontex and partner countries takes place though different level working arrangements, and includes cooperation on return operations as well as information exchange, sharing best practices and conducting joint risk analyses.
The Commission is also providing significant financial support to partner countries though different programmes and projects, to support capacity building and the law enforcement reforms in partner countries. As a broader response to the coronavirus, the Commission is redirecting assistance from the Instrument of Pre-Accession and European Neighbourhood Instrument respectively for Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership partners for immediate needs and to tackle socio-economic consequences. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership partners have put in place wide range of measures and repatriated their nationals including from Schengen+ area.
What is the revised visa suspension mechanism?
The visa suspension mechanism was first introduced as part of the EU's visa policy in 2013. The mechanism gives a possibility to temporarily suspend the visa exemption for a third country, for a short period of time, in case of a substantial increase in irregular migration from the partner countries.
The new measures allow the European Union to react quicker and in a more flexible manner when faced with an increased migration or with internal security risks which may arise from visa-free travel.
The European Parliament and the Council adopted a revised mechanism which entered into force in 2017. Under the revised mechanism, the Commission can trigger the suspension mechanism,whereas previously only Member States could do so. In addition, the revised mechanism introduced an obligation for the Commission to:
-monitor the continuous fulfilment of the visa liberalisation requirements which were used to assess to grant visa free travel to a third country as a result of a successful conclusion of a visa liberalisation dialogue;
-report regularly to the European Parliament and to the Council, at least once a year, for a period of seven years after the date of entry into force of visa liberalisation for that third country.
Today, the Commission is publishing its third report under the monitoring and reporting obligation.
When can the suspension mechanism be triggered?
The suspension mechanism can be triggered in the following circumstances:
-a substantial increase (more than 50%) of irregular migration of people coming from partner countries, including people found to be staying irregularly, and persons refused entry at the border;
-a substantial increase (more than 50%) of asylum applications with low recognition rate (around 3-4%);
-a decrease of cooperation on readmission, notably in case of an increasing refusal rate for readmission applications;
-an increased risk to the security of Member States, in particular serious criminal offences.
The Commission can also trigger the mechanism in case certain requirements are no longer met as regards the fulfilment of the visa liberalisation benchmarks by third countries that have gone through a visa liberalisation dialogue.
The last report was adopted in December 2018. Why is the third report adopted only in July 2020?
This timeline allows the report to reflect a full calendar year of statistical data, which was not the case previously as this data becomes available in the first half of the year.As a result, this report reflects full 2019 Eurostat data with a focus on variations between 2018-2019. Where possible, the policy developments in analysed countries include developments up until July 2020.
What are the next steps?
The report sets out actions to be taken by the partner countries to ensure the sustainability of reforms. Implementation of the visa liberalisation benchmarks is a continuous and ongoing process. Close monitoring will therefore continue, including through senior officials meetings as well as through the regular Justice, Freedom and Security subcommittee meetings and dialogues between the EU and visa-free countries - and for the Western Balkans countries, the regular enlargement reports, including, where relevant, EU accession negotiations.
For More Information
Press Release: Visa liberalisation - Commission reports on fulfilment of visa-free requirements by Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries