BRUSSELS -- In a move perceived as hugely symbolic both by Brussels and the countries in the region, the European Union has agreed to lift its visa requirement for Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina from next month.
With Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro already on the EU visa-free list since December 19, 2009, this leaves Kosovo the only part of the western Balkans to be denied the privilege.
The move announced today by EU interior ministers meeting in Brussels will come into effect in "mid-December."
Politicians and officials in Brussels had in advance of the meeting said the intention was to abolish visas "before Christmas," but that message was not repeated today -- perhaps in recognition of the fact that both countries contain significant Muslim populations.
The EU decision means holders of state-of-the-art biometric Bosnian and Albanian passports can travel freely for up to three months in the so-called Schengen zone -- which includes all EU member states with the exception of Britain, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania, as well as non-EU members Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland.Asylum Concerns
Although the decision was unanimous, officials say there has been some skepticism behind the scenes.
France and the Netherlands have viewed with particular alarm the surge of Eastern European immigration that has followed the lifting of visas and border controls.
A police clerk issues a new biometric passport to a Bosnian citizen at a police station in Sarajevo.
They were not alone in raising the issue. Sweden, for example, has seen the number of Serbian asylum seekers rise to over 4,000 this year -- compared to a little over 400 during the same period last year.
Visa matters are subject to majority votes in the bloc and officials say the skeptics would have been outvoted by those who see today's decision as an historic step toward ultimately bringing the region into the European Union.
But the misgivings of the minority were clearly reflected in the statement adopted today by the EU interior ministers, which warns that the bloc will carefully monitor the situation and, if necessary, could "suspend" visa liberalization for the western Balkans -- in other words, reintroduce visas.
Representing the EU's rotating presidency at today's meeting, Belgian State Secretary for Migration and Asylum Melchior Wathelet acknowledged the concerns.
"The biggest problem would be, let's say, 'wrong' asylum seekers [people with unfounded asylum claims] that would come to seek asylum within Europe based on [economic reasons]," Wathelet said. "That is really what we do not want to see."
Defending the decision to open EU borders to Bosnians and Albanians, Wathelet said the EU experience with Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro so far had been "paradoxically" useful in preventing similar problems from arising with respect to Albania and Bosnia.
In this context, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom particularly underscored media campaigns being run by Bosnian and Albanian authorities warning their citizens that visa-free travel in the EU is not intended for seeking asylum or jobs.
Commenting on Kosovo, European Commission spokesman Michele Cercone today said the bloc would only discuss dropping visas once the authorities in Pristina agree to receive without restrictions Kosovar subjects expelled by EU member states.
Although five EU member states have yet to recognize Kosovo's independence, officials say there exists a "broad consensus" within the bloc that Kosovo's 2 million people cannot be left outside the EU's visa-liberalization regime.