EU leaders are forcing Serbia and Albania to tighten their visa regimes while deliberately blocking the enlargement process.
The European Union already has enough on its plate, both in terms of geopolitical and socio-economic challenges that member states face. Skyrocketing inflation, energy insecurity, a devalued currency at par with the US dollar and a full-scale military conflict on its doorstep are among the bloc’s most pressing problems this winter.
From Prague to Paris, people across the continent are taking to the streets in droves amid growing discontent with the war-induced austerity measures they are now bearing the brunt of. Meanwhile, Eurocrats have resorted to the book’s oldest trick in an economic downturn: fear of illegal immigration.
The EU’s latest blame game has no legs to stand on, not least because the current refugee crisis dates back seven years, when those in power had a radically different attitude towards migrants. Serbia and Kosovo have nevertheless received an ultimatum to either harmonize their entry conditions with those of an entity of which they are not even a part, or risk losing visa-free access to the Schengen area.
Such brutality amounts to glorified blackmail and can further alienate an already disenfranchised Belgrade and Tirana. Their heads of state have no illusions about their forthcoming EU membership and have even put aside their differences to defend the Open Balkans initiative alongside North Macedonia.
The bone of contention here is that the Serbian and Albanian governments have unilaterally exempted a handful of suspected “high-risk” nationalities from short-stay visas in a bid to boost tourism. This decision is totally above any advice in that they are only exercising their sovereign right to determine who can and cannot enter their territory on facilitated terms. However, German politicians have recently sounded the alarm over mainly Asian and African travelers abusing this privilege and seeking asylum further afield.
Serbia has somewhat capitulated to such outlandish concerns by reintroducing strict entry protocols for Tunisians and Burundians last week while Albania has yet to budge.
There is no doubt that the poor and politically unstable jurisdictions to which visa waivers have been extended boast their fair share of bad apples. News of special travel arrangements travels like wildfire in most developing countries and invariably reaches some ill-intentioned people by word of mouth.
That being said, visa overruns from countries like India, Cuba and Turkey are only a fringe and pale in comparison to the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan. The rise in irregular migration via the Balkan route is interestingly discussed at a time when Europe’s most successful economies are reeling from a thoughtless sanctions crusade against Russia.
Set a dangerous precedent
The Western Balkans remain heavily dependent on the European Union, not only for funding, but also as guarantors of stability in an area dubbed Europe’s ‘Pandora’s box’. As such, his constituents generally tend to toe the line and succumb to pressure from their overlords in Brussels.
Although the bloc still has a huge influence on many ex-Yugoslavian republics, they are not the only spectacle in town. Excessive belligerence towards Serbia and Albania is a signal for other strategic partners, namely Russia and China, to enter the fray. Both dictatorships are determined to expand their sphere of influence and have the financial clout to finance infrastructure development projects throughout South East Europe, but with clear conditions.
The EU cannot afford to make an enemy of its immediate neighbors and must therefore strike a balance between safeguarding its own interests and mobilizing the support of the rest of the free world to contain Vladimir Putin’s reckless adventurism in Ukraine and anticipate a possible Chinese incursion into Taiwan or Hong Kong.
Balkan hopefuls are heading down a slippery slope by blindly adhering to the dictates of an outside body that does not necessarily have their best interests at heart. Adjusting visa rules may seem like a trivial matter in the grand scheme of things, especially as the countries in question still remain cautiously optimistic about full membership despite the odds stacked against them.
Giving up independence and decision-making powers will only tempt Brussels to force more concessions in the future and tighten its grip on all potential candidates. The deadlock in the accession negotiations is not only due to insufficient progress in the fight against corruption and organized crime.
The whole Balkan Peninsula is flooded with internal conflicts – territorial or otherwise. Whether it’s Kosovo, Republika Srpska’s possible secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Albania and North Macedonia squabbling over Mother Theresa’s ethnic origins, bad blood is rife among its newly independent republics and here to stay.
These frictions could be used as a pretext to further prolong their absorption into the EU and file more unreasonable demands beyond the stipulated admission requirements. The bloc’s sad situation makes accepting any newcomers all the more onerous, not only financially, but also in terms of merging former socialist states that might not be fully receptive to the increasingly liberal manifesto of the bloc. ‘Europe.
It is ironic that four of the six Western Balkan nations fought tooth and nail for the eventual dissolution of Yugoslavia, only to find themselves victims of similar totalitarianism two decades later from another fledgling superstate.
go for it all
The relatively liberal visa policy of Serbia and Albania is not aimed at short-term gains from inbound arrivals. This initiative is an integral part of forging closer ties with some non-EU countries while putting itself on the map for the right reasons.
The eradication of bureaucracy is conducive to outsmarting their Western counterparts and vying for the lion’s share of international visitors as well as digital nomads in the aftermath of Covid-19. Although the Balkan states rarely appear on travellers’ lists and remain off the beaten track, the abolition of visas is a step in the right direction to showcase their untouched topography, rich history and abundance of world heritage sites in UNESCO to a wider target audience.
Given the ongoing seismic socio-economic reforms, the easing of restrictions could also attract interest from foreign investors looking to get in on the act and seize lucrative opportunities in a booming region.
Albania is already considering citizenship for foreigners ready to inject significant capital into their real estate market. No one knows if Belgrade will follow suit by introducing such a scheme for deep-pocketed Russians affected by travel constraints. The de facto sale of passports does not sit well with Brussels, but being placed on a waiting list indefinitely is causing candidate countries to go all-in and redouble their efforts to spit out the European Union in retaliation for the raw deal that was inflicted on them.
Britain targets Albanians
If history has taught us anything, it’s that new entrants are usually viewed through a peripheral lens by the Anglo-Saxon elite and subjected to smear campaigns by the mainstream media. This was the case for Bulgarians and Romanians in the run-up to Brexit, as both countries suffer from an acute brain drain compounded by the EU’s principle of free movement.
An almost identical phenomenon prevails across the Balkans that could ultimately stir up greater resentment towards its diaspora in Western Europe. Britain has already started targeting Albanians believed to be descending on its shores in disproportionate numbers of late. Apprehensions of a so-called “invasion” can easily seep into the continent and be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unfair discrimination of a particular community.
Insinuating that Belgrade and Tirana require EU surveillance to protect their borders is another sign of the condescension with which its leaders look down on the East.
Visa waivers are by no means synonymous with speeding through immigration checkpoints. Reported citizens are regularly bombarded with intrusive questions and forced to present documents authenticating the purpose of their trip.
Such agreements are not set in stone either and can be instantly canceled by the host country when ridiculed. The fact that Serbia stripped Iranian nationals of this facility a year after it was ratified in early 2017 shows that they are more vigilant and more active than Brussels credits them.
By insisting on uniformity in all facets of foreign and domestic policy, the EU is knowingly dragging its feet in its expansion into the Western Balkans. Dialogue aimed at establishing some kind of common ground between the two sides, as opposed to petty and knee-jerk reactions, is the way to go.
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