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EU: Prodi Soothes East European Fears Of New Visa Regime

Speaking at the EU summit today in Tampere, Finland, the chair of the European Commission sought to reassure East Europeans who fear that the EU will impose stricter visa requirements. RFE/RL correspondent Anthony Georgieff reports from Tampere.

Tampere, Finland, 15 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The visa regime of the EU members states have been a primary tool to prevent illegal immigration and cross-border crime. And as cracking down on both those is a declared aim of the Tampere summit, some East European and Central Asian countries have expressed concern that their citizens may be faced with even stricter visa requirements as a result of the summit. They fear that new restrictions may be enacted that could, in practice, make it impossible for their citizens to travel to the West.

Romano Prodi, the chairman of the European Commission, sought to appease those fears among non-EU states today.

Without naming specific countries, Prodi told the EU heads of state and heads of government who have gathered for the summit, "We need to send a message to the non-EU citizens that there is no contradiction between the pursuit of security [and welfare] for our own citizens and our commitment to hospitality and non-discrimination against non-EU citizens."

In his speech, which has so far been the most important statement at the summit, Prodi outlined four priorities for the European Commission in its attempt to control organized crime and prevent illegal immigration.

First, Prodi said the EU must reassure its citizens that their governments are really caring for their welfare and safety. Many analysts here interpret that as a direct comment on the rise of xenophobic and extremist political groups in Europe.

Second, he said, the EU must reform its administration to enable it to meet the new challenges of organized crime. He called organized crime the most serious problem that has arisen in Europe since the collapse of communism.

Third, the EU must send a message to the criminal world, he said. The West must make it clear to organized criminals both inside and outside the EU that the EU governments will use their law enforcement agencies and legal systems to the utmost to combat drug trafficking and money laundering.

And fourth, Prodi said that the EU must make it clear to the non-EU citizens [who need visas for travel to western Europe] that the West remains committed to encouraging international travel and exchanges for legitimate purposes.

Spokesmen for the European Commission refused to comment on whether the summit will result in recommendations for changes to the current visa regulations on a pan-European level.

Analysts say, however, that it is unlikely any such changes will be finalized in Tampere. Under the Schengen agreement on immigration and policing, which most EU countries are party to, visa policies are the exclusive prerogative of the national governments. Although any government is free to introduce changes at short notice -- or at no notice at all -- any alterations on a coordinated, pan-European level are likely to take years to implement.