Border Patrols

Stricter EU Visa Procedures Fall Especially Hard on Eastern European Immigrants

Long queues, incriminating interviews and ever-increasing expenses are a process that everyone from the Balkans goes through to obtain a visa for an EU country. After the entrance of the 10 new countries, many of the original EU-15 states, fearing a sharp increase in cheap workers from the economically weaker new members states, introduced stricter visa procedures and higher fees.

Border controls are getting ever stricter | Photo: Swiss Info

These changes have had significant results. A recent study of Serbian students, for example, showed that seventy percent have never left the country, preventing them from learning about life in the West.

This has been exacerbated since the fall of the Milosevic regime in 2000, as an expected relaxation in the visa policy has in fact gone the other way, becoming even stricter and isolating the country even more.

“The visa policy in a globalised world of the 21st century cannot remain stuck in the 1950s, or even the 1980s,” wrote Jelko Kacin and Henrik Lax, members of the European Parliament, in the International Herald Tribune. “A modern integrated Europe with a modern economy can not be built out of darkness. It is time for the EU to reconsider.”

It is also unlikely that the visa restrictions, designed to curb illegal border movement and organized crime, are having the desired effect.

“The organised crime argument is, to be honest, a rather weak one. The current visa regime in my view actually penalises honest travelers and gives incentives to traffickers,” says Whyte. “On top of that it is well known that the biggest masterminds of organised crime in the Balkans not only have Schengen visas, they have Schengen passports. It seems to me that the idea of a visa regime helping to protect Western Europe from organised crime is a bit illusory….”

The U.K. government, the most vocal among those opting for tighter visa regulations, has pointed to the unexpected size of the influx of immigrants there after the 2004 enlargement.

The fear of the influx cheap labor tipping the economies of “Old Europe” has turned out to be unsubstantiated, however. Sweden, Ireland and the U.K., all with open visa policies after the 2004 expansion, “experienced higher economic growth, a drop in unemployment and increase of employment,” according to a European Commission report.

With Bulgaria and Romania joining the EU in five months, these fears have once again stirred debate on visa policies, and are most likely to result in further restrictions, as the governments in London and Dublin have already announced.

To date, only six member states have vowed to keep their doors open to workers from the new countries after Jan. 1st, 2007, although Sweden is likely to become the seventh. Among the six, only Finland is part of the “older” members. The Polish government has been on the front of addressing critiques of visa restrictions and has set an open-door policy despite its own high unemployment rate. The move is intended to set an example for countries favoring stricter regulations.

Sixteen of the EU member states have not yet taken a stance on the visa regulation debate, while the UK and Ireland have announced curbs. Spain and Italy have, however, lifted their visa restrictions imposed on labourers from the ten 2006 members, however, they have yet to take a position on Bulgarian and Romanian.

The foreign work force from the new member states represented less than 1 percent of the EU labor market, with only Austria and Ireland above that mark with 1.4 and 3.8 percent respectively. Although Ireland has seen by far the largest growth in foreign workers, it also enjoyed very strong economic performance that left the country the second wealthiest of the eight OECD countries, behind Japan and ahead of the U.K.

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