BRUSSELS -- The European Commission has recommended that Schengen countries, most of which are members of the EU, stop requiring visas from short-term visitors from Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro as of January 1, 2010.
Commission Vice President Jacques Barrot described the decision as "historic" for the former Yugoslav states, which have been promised eventual EU membership but which have seen their integration with the bloc stall in recent years.
"This is an historic stage in our relations with the western Balkans," Barrot said. "The lifting of the visa requirement has been eagerly awaited and will obviously allow for much more closer relations between the citizens of these three countries and the Schengen [countries]."
The move, once it takes effect, will put the three countries on a par with Croatia, which already has visa-free status. Slovenia, another ex-Yugoslav republic, has been in the EU since 2004.
The EU decision does not mean a blanket removal of all travel restrictions. It will allow holders of state-of-the-art biometric passports -- which contain a computer chip containing the holder's vital data -- to do away with the need to secure a visa for trips to Schengen countries lasting fewer than 90 days.
The Schengen zone comprises all of the EU -- minus Great Britain and Ireland -- as well as Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland.
EU member states, together with the three additional Schengen members, are expected to formally approve the measure in late October, allowing it to take effect on January 1, 2010.
Western Balkan citizens wanting to live, work, or study in the EU will still have to apply for residence permits.
Also speaking in Brussels, the EU's enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, stressed that would-be travelers to the EU from Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro will no longer have to face the time-consuming and often humiliating rigors involved in receiving a visa.Vetting Process
But EU officials were also keen to stress that the concession came at a cost for the three countries.
Opening up borders to poorer countries is all too readily associated in most EU member states with illegal immigration and international organized crime. Rehn said the decision to liberalize the visa regime came only at the end of a rigorous vetting procedure.
"Each country was presented with a road map last year setting out these conditions, ranging from passport security [and tighter] border controls to a reinforced fight against corruption and organized crime," Rehn said.
Rehn and Barrot said Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro will in future face regular follow-up inspections -- the implication being that the visa-liberalization arrangements could be reversed, if the EU perceives its conditions are not being met.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn in Brussels
The two EU officials gave Macedonia a completely clean bill of health. They noted, however, that Serbia's border with Kosovo and its relations with the Albanian-majority country, which it does not recognize, remain a cause for concern. The EU expects Belgrade to address such concerns in a report due in September.
Montenegro, for its part, will need to reexamine its law on foreigners, which is causing concern in Brussels, and step up the fight against corruption and organized crime.Bosnian Gridlock
Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which did not make the cut this year, will now have to wait till mid-2010, when the European Commission will make its next recommendations. If successful, citizens of the two countries could expect visa-free travel within the Schengen area from January 1, 2011.
Doris Pack, a German member of the European Parliament, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that Bosnia's exclusion from the visa benefits are a result of the continued failure of the country's leaders to put their ethnic divisions behind them.
Pack said that politicians in Bosnia, including Haris Silajdzic, the Bosniak member of the tripartite presidency, and Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Serbian entity, the Republika Srpska, "have so far failed to ensure that peace is restored in this country."
She described the denial of visa-free status as "a signal for politicians there, and I very much hope that the local population finally forces them to make a move, because it has elected them and it sees that they are not working for the people."
Serbian citizens living in the Republika Srpska -- and their Croatian compatriots in Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation -- are free to travel visa-free within the Schengen space, provided they hold biometric passports.
Kosovo 'Not Forgotten'
With regards to Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in early 2008, Rehn said the European Commission's evaluation process is "status-neutral" in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1244.
The United Nations has not admitted Kosovo and five of the EU's own member states (Spain, Romania, Cyprus, Slovakia, and Greece) do not recognize the former Serbian province as an independent country.
But Rehn said this does not mean Kosovo is condemned to an indefinite limbo in its relations with the EU. "The commission and the European Union remain strongly committed to its European perspective," he said.
Rehn said that "a number of practical steps" have already been taken by some, but not all, EU member states to ease the visa application procedure for Kosovars.
The European Commission said the EU's visa-waiver decision will not apply to Serbian citizens based in Kosovo.RFE/RL's Balkan Service contributed to this report