In a world that is becoming increasingly mobile, we want that mobility to happen in a fair but orderly manner. Yesterday it was International Migrants Day, and today we expect the UN General Assembly to endorse the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.
There is a misconception today that most people on the move do so irregularly or only for reasons of poverty or persecution. Many people today also move and travel for tourism, for business reasons, or to visit family for example. We do not want to hamper that kind of mobility.
But that kind of mobility depends also on our international partners.
Today, citizens from around 60 countries around the world can travel to the EU without needing a visa. In turn, EU citizens should also receive the possibility to travel to these countries without a visa. This reciprocity is a central principle in our visa policy.
Thanks to our continued engagement and patient diplomatic efforts, we have successfully achieved visa reciprocity with almost all pending cases of non-reciprocity. This time last year, we achieved full reciprocity with Canada after it lifted visa requirements for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens.
We also achieved reciprocity with Australia, Brunei and Japan in the past. Today, there is only one case where reciprocity is not respected for all EU Member States: the United States still require visas for citizens of Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania.
Visa-free travel to the United States for all EU citizens is a priority for us, and we have intensified our contacts with the United States over the past year with the objective of bringing the five countries concerned into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.
All five countries have made good progress when it comes to fulfilling the requirements set by the United States, particularly as regards implementing bilateral security agreements with the US.
Right now, the main legal obstacle for the majority of them remains the visa refusal rate.
Here too however we see tangible progress, which has been acknowledged by the United States:
- Bulgaria has recorded a decrease in refusal rates
- Romania's refusal rate has remained steady
- Poland and Croatia are close to meeting the threshold
- and Cyprus remains under the threshold
What this shows is that our continued engagement bears fruit.
I am confident that it will ultimately result in citizens of Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania also being able to travel to the United States without a visa.
Our support to these Member States is a given. Both practical, in terms of funding information campaigns to their citizens on how to meet US visa requirements in order to bring refusal rates down; but also political, in terms of putting our full weight behind their efforts.
I have personally raised the issue of reciprocity on every possible opportunity with our American friends. We therefore continue to consider that suspending visa-free travel for US citizens would not serve our interests. It would also undermine the positive progress achieved so far and the results of our continuous diplomatic efforts and engagements towards meeting the Visa Waiver Programme requirements.
Our position can of course be reviewed in light of future developments, but a suspension would very likely lead to significant negative impacts on both sides of the Atlantic. Visa-free travel is both in our interest and in the interest of the United States.
We are determined to do everything in our power to achieve visa free travel for all EU citizens and we will continue working with the United States and the five countries concerned towards this goal.
As I said before, fair and orderly mobility is something that we strive for – not only for our own citizens, but also for others wishing to visit the European Union. This is why we consider visa-free travel with our Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership partners to be a major achievement.
At the same time, visa-free travel also comes with responsibilities, for citizens and for the relevant authorities. I can confirm that all the eight visa-free countries from the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe continue to fulfil the requirements for visa-free travel. At the same time, more efforts are needed to continue curbing irregular migration, and fighting corruption and organised crime.
2018 saw increasing numbers of unfounded asylum applications from Moldovan and Georgian citizens. Irregular migration from Ukraine also remains high. All three countries should take immediate action to address the irregular migration challenges in an effective and swift manner.
Albanian efforts and good cooperation with relevant EU Member States have resulted in a 32% decrease in asylum applications by Albanians nationals in the first half of this year, compared to the same period last year. These efforts must be sustained. More work is also needed for all visa-free countries to fully align with the EU visa policy.
While we welcome that Serbia has terminated its visa-free policy with Iran, we have concerns regarding the visa-free status given by Serbia to other countries on the EU visa-required list due to possible migratory and security risks.
In addition, ongoing efforts to prevent and fight against organised crime must be stepped up in all countries. Moldova in particular needs to take immediate action when it comes to fighting corruption, as a matter of urgency. Ukraine should take immediate action to ensure that the measures introduced with previous reforms in this area continue delivering results.
It is in our common interest to ensure that visa-free travel can be maintained, that the reforms achieved are sustained, and that the countries do not backtrack on their achievements.
We will continue working hand in hand with all eight countries to this end.