The Commission is today reporting on the functioning of the visa-free regime with the Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) as well as the Eastern Partnership countries (Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine).
Today's report is the first full assessment carried out under the new suspension mechanism for the eight countries benefitting from visa-free travel under the visa liberalisation scheme.
What is the general assessment?
All eight countries have demonstrated full commitment to meeting the necessary requirements and have undertaken important efforts to implement a number of far-reaching reforms set out under their visa liberalisation processes.
The Commission considers that all countries assessed continue to fulfil the visa liberalisation benchmarks.
However, immediate action is required in a number of specific areas to maintain their continuous and sustainable implementation.
For some countries, more work is needed to fight organised crime and corruption and keep irregular migration in check.
It is now imperative that those reforms are sustained and that the countries do not backtrack on their achievements.
Why are only certain specific areas assessed?
While the Commission is monitoring the continuous fulfilment of all visa liberalisation benchmarks, we are not today reporting on benchmarks considered to be stable.
Today's report focuses on specific areas where more work is needed, notably irregular migration, organised crime, and the fight against corruption.
In parallel, the Commission will report in detail on the broader situation in the area of home affairs and justice in the framework of the enlargement reports for the Western Balkans countries and in the context of the implementation of the Association Agreements with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine.
Why does the report only assess 8 countries out of all those which have visa-free regimes with the EU?
Whilst 60 countries around the world benefit from visa-free travel to the EU, in some cases, decisions on visa free access to the Schengen Area may follow from bilateral negotiations, called 'visa liberalisation dialogues'. They are based on the progress made by the countries concerned in implementing major reforms in areas such as the strengthening of the rule of law, combating of organised crime, corruption and illegal migration and improving of administrative capacity in border control and security of documents.
The report only focuses on those countries which have successfully completed a visa liberalisation dialogue: Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, the Republic of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine.
This follows from the Commission's obligation to monitor the continuous fulfilment of visa liberalisation requirements by non-EU countries having successfully concluded a visa liberalisation dialogue and to report on those matters to the European Parliament and the Council.
It also follows from the Commission's statement of November 2010 on the establishment of a follow-up mechanism to the visa liberalisation processes for the Western Balkan countries, which was reaffirmed in February 2017.
Why are only some countries specifically mentioned in the conclusion?
The report's conclusions highlight the fact that Albania, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine each need to take immediate action in order to ensure continued progress in specific areas. For Albania, the challenges of irregular migration need to be further tackled. Moldova needs to take immediate action to ensure the sustainability of the anti-corruption benchmark and anti-money laundering benchmark. And in view of the recent developments as regards the fight against corruption, Ukrainian authorities need to step up action to ensure previously achieved progress in this area is maintained and consolidated.
How often does the Commission report on the fulfilment of the benchmarks?
Under the new suspension mechanism, the Commission needs to report on the continuous fulfilment of the visa liberalisation benchmarks at least once a year for a period of at least seven years after the date of entry into force of visa liberalisation for third countries. The Commission will report again to the European Parliament and the Council on the continuous fulfilment of visa liberalisation requirements by third countries in 2018.
What is a visa liberalisation requirement (benchmark)?
The EU conducts visa liberalisation dialogues with some non-EU countries to work towards the long-term goal of visa-free travel, provided that conditions for well-managed and secure mobility are in place.
Visa liberalisation dialogues were successfully conducted between the EU and five Western Balkan countries, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, as well as three Eastern Partnership countries, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. They resulted in the granting of visa free travel to citizens of these countries; for Montenegro, Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in December 2009, for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina at the end 2010, for Moldova in April 2014, for Georgia in March 2017 and for Ukraine in June 2017.
These dialogues were built upon ‘Visa Liberalisation Roadmaps' for the Western Balkan countries' and 'Visa Liberalisation Action Plans' (VLAP) for the Eastern Partnership countries. These Roadmaps and Action Plans included four blocks of requirements, called "benchmarks" which the countries had to fulfil. They related to document security, including biometrics; border management, migration and asylum; public order and security; and external relations and fundamental rights. The benchmarks concerned both the policy and institutional framework (legislation and planning) and the effective and sustainable implementation of this framework.
During the visa liberalisation dialogues, the Commission closely monitored the implementation of the Roadmaps and Action Plans through regular progress reports. These progress reports were transmitted to the European Parliament and the Council and are publicly accessible.
What is the revised visa suspension mechanism?
The visa suspension mechanism was first introduced as part of the EU visa policy in 2013 to provide for the possibility to temporarily suspend the visa exemption for the nationals of a third country for a short period of time in case of a substantial increase in irregular migration.
In May 2016, the Commission proposed to revise the existing rules in order to further strengthen this mechanism. The new measures allow the European Union to react more quickly and in a more flexible manner if faced by strong migratory pressure or an increase in risk to the internal security of Member States that may arise from visa-free travel. Under the revised mechanism, the Commission can now trigger the mechanism, whereas previously only Member States could do so. In addition, the revised mechanism also introduced an obligation for the Commission to:
· monitor the continuous fulfilment of the visa liberalisation requirements which were used to assess the appropriateness of granting visa free travel to a third country as a result of a successful conclusion of a visa liberalisation dialogue; and
· report about this continuous fulfilment regularly to the European Parliament and to the Council, at least once a year, for a period of seven years after the date of entry into force of visa liberalisation for that third country, and thereafter when the Commission considers it to be necessary, or upon request by the European Parliament or the Council.
The revised suspension mechanism was adopted in February 2017 and entered into force on 28 March 2017. Today, the Commission is publishing its first report under the new monitoring and reporting obligation.
When can the suspension mechanism be triggered?
The suspension mechanism can be triggered in the following circumstances:
- a substantial increase (more than 50%) of irregular migration, including people found to be staying irregularly, and persons refused entry at the border;
- a substantial increase (more than 50%) of asylum applications with low recognition rate (around 3-4%);
- a decrease of cooperation on readmission, notably in case of an increasing refusal rate for readmission applications;
- an increased risk to the security of Member States, in particular serious criminal offences.
The Commission can also trigger the mechanism in case certain requirements are no longer met as regards the fulfilment of the visa liberalisation benchmarks by third countries that have gone through a visa liberalisation dialogue.
What are the next steps?
The report sets out actions to be taken by the partner countries to ensure the sustainability of reforms. The Commission will closely follow up with the authorities on progress made towards meeting these recommendations.
The Commission will report again to the European Parliament and the Council on further developments before the end of 2018.
For More Information
Press release: Commission reports on implementation of benchmarks for Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries