Lines on the Face of Europe

Why visas are dangerous

, by Julia Mikić

Lines on the Face of Europe

The ’visa curtain’, however thin, is a serious mental barrier between the countries behind it and the rest of Europe. Unless it is abolished soon, the discrimination it stands for may easily backfire, and turn into an anti-European sentiment among those Europeans forced to wait, pay, and worry whenever they need to travel abroad.

It is easy to concede that few things in life are more annoying, more frustrating, and feel more like a waste of time than waiting in lines. Luckily for the citizens of the Schengen countries – waiting in long lines at airport passport controls when travelling in Europe is now, for most part, just an unpleasant memory from the past. For the less lucky among us, it is an effective reminder of ’some’ being ’more equal’ and the meaning of EU membership as, among other things, saving individuals’ time. And time, as we know, matters.

However, next time you sigh in frustration at waiting in line because of travelling from a non-Schengen airport to a Schengen one, imagine what it would feel like if the same act, before you could even board that plane, required a longer line, a more anxious wait, and came at a cost?

To millions of Europeans however, being able to travel in Europe ‘just’ by having one’s passport stamped remains a mere wish.

For approximately 13 million people from the Western Balkans – those with Macedonian, Montenegrin and Serbian passports – this memory of frustration, uncertainty and costs is still a very fresh one. They have been able to travel freely in Europe for barely over nine months now, since 19th December 2009. Why the 8 million people from the neighbouring countries, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, and Kosovo still have to wait for this privilege the rest of us is used to taking for granted, is not clear, and much less justifiable.

Visas are, by nature, not an insurmountable obstacle, but that is exactly where the problem lies. By implying there is a need to double-check, go through, and approve (or deny) a fellow European’s movement within Europe. The message sent out is that being able to visit a neighbour is a privilege some have earned by virtue of birth, while others have to earn it by working their way through suspicion. This grey area of the patronising ‘you can move freely as long as, if, and but’ may in theory be no barrier to the people behind the visa curtain realising their right to travel in Europe, but in practice it is exactly that. The effect of this discrimination is twofold:

Firstly, it enhances the perception that acceptance and equality come at a cost. By attaching a price tag to having one’s travel documents recognised as valid, when simultaneously the rest of the continent gets it for free because they were born in the right place of the right parents, however symbolic the price, it becomes perceived as ‘the price of Europe’. And if the doors of Europe are opened by inserting a credit card into a slot – perhaps, then, it is best not to bother trying to open them at all.

Secondly, having to undergo an application procedure, proving one’s intentions are honest if one is as much as going on a holiday, and having the fate of one’s travel plans put into the hands of a state official is, to say the least, humiliating. Moreover, it results in a sour-grapes kind of resistance in people’s minds, primarily young people’s, who were born already behind the visa curtain and cannot remember ever not having been behind it. Consequently, they are inclined to build their identities around the limitations of their position, embracing the dichotomy them-us/Europe-my nation as something real and even crucial to the definition of themselves.

In the case of the last three Western Balkan countries behind the visa curtain – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, and Kosovo – there is an added delicate dimension: that of religion. Incidentally, these three countries are the only three countries with territories fully on the European continent, fully ‘surrounded’ by the EU, and whose major religious denomination is Islam. While the reasons used to justify these countries’ exclusion from the no-visa group are almost certainly not religious in nature, an ‘inconvenient coincidence’ such as this bears the risk of being interpreted as a case of religious discrimination against whole nations. Add to this Turkey, stuck in the bizarre position of being an EU candidate yet not exempt from the visa regime, and the coincidence becomes all the more inconvenient. Religion is by definition something people tend to feel quite strong about. A scenario in which it is implied that Europe has reservations about some nations due to the predominant tradition of worship is a scenario which breeds self-inflicted isolation in resistance to the perceived hostility of the ‘they’ entity (in this case, the rest of Europe). Also isolation, as we have had the misfortune to see, occasionally turns into extremism. Leaving even the slightest chance of this sort of interpretation concerning the remaining visa regime is something most definitely not in Europe’s interest.

It is up to the EU to focus on melting the real obstacles – those of the accession criteria – rather than preserving the artificial and arbitrary ones, such as visas.

Time, again, matters. These European children are born and brought up taking the lines separating the privileged and the unprivileged for granted and embracing their political isolation as a given. By growing up in an environment where cultural exchange with the rest of Europe is an exception (which takes time, money, and effort) rather than a rule, they can hardly be expected to be the carriers of the much-needed change and integration in their societies. Yet – the future of whole Europe depends on this very generation and this very change. The longer the wait, the deeper the gap between Europe as ‘them’, and ‘us’, whoever ‘we’ may be – while the future we are supposed to work for is one where Europe is ‘we’.

The burden of this future, certainly, lies on the shoulders of all parties. EU membership does, indeed, come at a price, but the price tag reads ‘accession criteria’, nothing more or less. It is up to the EU, however, to assist the countries in order to meet these criteria. It is also up to the EU not to send mixed signals to potential new members about their eligibility for calling themselves ‘European’. It is up to the EU to focus on melting the real obstacles – those of the accession criteria – rather than preserving the artificial and arbitrary ones, such as visas.

Soon, hopefully, Bosnians, Albanians and Kosovars will be able to travel in Europe without undergoing humiliating procedures.

The principle problems with the concept of visas in Europe will, however, remain, with all the young Turks, Moldovans, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Russians, Armenians, Georgians and Azerbaijanis still waiting in the anxiety-filled visa lines. Again, the responsibility is on their countries as well as the EU to work on the integration actively and with a sense of urgency, so these young people are welcomed as Europeans in Europe while they are still young and before the enthusiasm in their faces is replaced by lines of frustration. Time, after all, matters.

Author’s note: While all citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina are subject to Schengen visa regulations, ethnical Serbs and Croats are entitled to Serbian and Croatian (dual) citizenships and passports, respectively. This means that the visa regulations effectively only apply to the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) population in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who account for 48% of the total population.

Image: EU’s Visa Freedom dividing Balkans, source: Arirusila (2009) Cafe Babel post.

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