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The EU's Invisible 'Schengen Wall'

A Romanian customs officer checks a passport at the border with Moldova in Albita. The EU's eastern border divides the two neighbors.
A Romanian customs officer checks a passport at the border with Moldova in Albita. The EU's eastern border divides the two neighbors.
The "age of walls" never truly ended in Europe.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 allowed goods and money to begin moving freely across most of the continent. People, however, were another story.

It's a disparity that still engenders feelings of painful exclusion outside the EU's "Schengen wall," which divides the continent without regard to the motives, intentions, or dreams of those left outside its cozy confines.

There was a brief moment when the western borders of Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova opened up in the 1990s, allowing their citizens to freely visit Poland and other neighbors.

But these borders closed again as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and others joined the EU and had to comply in advance with the rules of the Schengen space, the visa-free zone encompassing 25 mostly Western European countries.

The countries of the South Caucasus have been even more isolated. With no land border with the EU, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were unable to enjoy even that brief window of visa-free travel in the '90s.

If the Schengen scheme fosters a sense of unity within the bloc, the feeling outside is one of painful exclusion.
But it is the Western Balkan countries, perhaps, that have had the bitterest pill to swallow. Before the breakup of Yugoslavia, they enjoyed unfettered travel across the countries of Western Europe. Twenty years later, most Balkan citizens -- with the exception of Slovenes and Croats -- can no longer travel to the EU without a visa.

The EU issues hundreds of thousands of visas annually to people in the post-Communist space, many of whom are lured by the promise of economic opportunity. Even with the global economic downturn and a dwindling European job pool, visa hopefuls are likely to continue lining up for the chance to travel west.

Black-Market Visas

The attraction of the European Union is strongest in Moldova, Europe's poorest country, where remittances from migrants dwarf the government's internal revenues.

Formally, Schengen visas should cost applicants in any country no more than 60 euros. But in Moldova, where a 90-day visa should officially cost just 35 euros, EU travel documents appear to be virtually unobtainable by honest means.

RFE/RL's Moldovan Service recently spoke with a one-time illegal immigrant in the EU. The woman, identified only as S.T., said she bought a visa through unofficial channels – and it came at a high price.

"I obtained my visa thanks to an acquaintance, who is now in Italy. I paid her $1,800 eight years ago," S.T. said.

And the price for Moldovans looking to enter the bloc has risen steeply since then, according to S.T., who says she now has Italian documents allowing her to travel freely in the EU.

“They now pay at least 4,000 euros [$5,276], and yet they're not even sure they'll make it to Italy. I paid $1,800, but now they pay 4000 euros to get there," she said.

Another Moldovan immigrant says she walked and hitchhiked for five days to reach Belgium, where she has since received legal status. If she were still at home, she estimates, a Schengen visa today would set her back at least 3,000 euros.

A Divided Europe

The Schengen space has become a powerful symbol of the long way Europe has come since the days of the Cold War. It is now possible to drive unimpeded from the easternmost points of Poland, just across the border from Ukraine or Belarus, to the Atlantic Ocean.

But if the Schengen scheme fosters a sense of unity within the bloc, the feeling outside is one of painful exclusion.

The blanket relegation of everyone behind the wall to outsider status is felt particularly keenly in the Balkans, where countries have traditionally felt part of the European historical and political mainstream.

Branka Trivic, a Belgrade correspondent with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, says people in Serbia and most other Balkan countries live in what she calls a European "ghetto." Visas may be obtained without bribes, but the process is still heavily skewed against the applicant.

"It's not easy to get a visa. If you're a decent young person who just wants to travel, to see the world, it's not easy,” Trivic said. “It's humiliating most of the time, and you need a lot of paperwork. And it also happens pretty often that you get refused, that you don't get the visa, without any explanation."

Trivic says the older generation still remembers with a certain sense of loss the open borders they enjoyed as Yugoslav citizens during the communist era. But it is the young she is most concerned about.

With studies showing 70 percent of young people have never left the territory of former Yugoslavia, Trivic says the limitations on travel interfere with the goal of instilling "European values" in them.

Red Tape

Even without taking corruption into account, applying for a Schengen visa is a grueling procedure.

A 90-day visa costs the applicant 35 euros if they come from Russia, Ukraine, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, or Moldova. Other nationalities typically pay 60 euros.

Conditions vary among the Schengen countries, but an applicant must usually produce fully paid travel tickets. They must also buy travel insurance for the duration of the visa, valid across the Schengen area, as well as providing for transportation costs in case of injury or death.

An applicant will need to show proof of sufficient funds -- at least 30 euros per day -- as well as confirmed hotel reservations and a letter of invitation, providing details of the relationship between the host and the guest if it is a private letter.

Further details, such as the route of the planned journey, and details of property owned, income, and employment may also be required from an applicant.

Applicants are warned a visa application could take at least two weeks to process. All countries reserve the right to reject visa applications without any explanation.

In Russia, the complex requirements and uncertainty involved are perceived as humiliating, particularly for a country which otherwise makes a point of not asking any favors from the EU. Visa-free travel has for years been at the top of Moscow's EU wish list, but is unlikely to materialize in the foreseeable future.

Serbia and Macedonia are the only EU neighbors with a realistic chance of securing that privilege within a few years. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said this week that talks on scrapping visas could start this year.

Other countries, however, are likely to need great reserves of patience for years to come. Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia all view the visa issue as one of great personal and symbolic consequence. In the EU, however, the question tends to be viewed through a colder lens of pragmatic self-interest.

At an EU summit on March 19-20, prospects for visa-free travel took up a considerable amount of the leaders' time during a debate of the bloc's Eastern Partnership initiative, which is meant to offer certain travel and trade benefits to six post-Soviet countries. Most of the debate was conducted in dry and bureaucratic terms, and essentially became a spat over phrasing.

Germany led the mostly Western European skeptics, saying the EU cannot offer its Eastern neighbors more than an "improved framework for future visa policy."

Poland was the standard-bearer for the liberals, arguing the EU already has numerous caveats in place guaranteeing that the bloc's tough standards -- including border controls and re-admittance commitments -- will have to be met before visas are scrapped.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski noted that as a symbolic goal, visa-free travel would serve as a powerful incentive for governments in Eastern Europe.

For most western European countries, however, visa policy remains first and foremost a domestic issue, and not a European one. Crime, integration problems, and rampant unemployment make immigration a very unpopular topic among voters in Germany, France, and other "old" EU countries.

Politicians and the public alike in Western Europe tend to assume that when a wealthier country opens its borders to a poor neighbor, increased immigration, with all its ills, will inevitably follow.

RFE/RL's Moldovan Service contributed to this report