The border-free zone is a boon for residents of European Union member countries, but will make visas more expensive and difficult to obtain for others
The expansion on 21 December of the Schengen border-free zone is great news for the citizens and residents of the European Union's new member states. For other Europeans, however, it means that the wall dividing them from their lucky EU neighbors will become even higher and more difficult to climb.
Despite some efforts to soften the impact of the new rules, the changes will make EU visas even more expensive and complicated to obtain for the vast majority of people from Eastern Europe, the western Balkans, and Central Asia.
Of the 10 countries that joined the EU in 2004, all but divided Cyprus are now incorporated fully into the Schengen area, which abolishes systematic border controls between participating countries and includes provisions for the harmonization of external border controls and a common "Schengen visa."
Ordinary citizens of the new Schengen members will no longer have to queue to have their passports examined at border checkpoints when traveling within the area. The change will improve the shipment of goods within the EU significantly, as lorry drivers will no longer face long delays.
Last but not least, the expansion of Schengen is a politically salient step toward the completion of the EU enlargement process. It will abolish the tacit division between "first class" and "second class" membership.
Schengen expansion, just like the signing of the Lisbon Treaty earlier in December, shows that the EU is emerging from the doldrums following the French and Dutch referenda on the EU constitutional treaty in 2005. Likewise, the results of the recent Polish elections, in which the voters swept away an EU skeptic and his populist ruling coalition and replaced it with a pro-EU government, suggest that contrary to the "enlargement fatigue" lingering in old member states, the enlarged EU does work.
PAYING FOR THE PRIVILEGE
Unfortunately, things do not look so bright from the other side of the newly beefed-up EU borders. Citizens of countries outside the new Schengen zone must now meet more stringent criteria to travel to neighboring countries such as Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic republics. And they will pay more to boot, because last year the EU raised the price of a standard Schengen visa from 35 to 60 euros.
This decision was justified by the costs of the updated Schengen database of criminal records. In short, non-EU citizens have been forced to contribute to the maintenance of a system the purpose of which is to weed out undesirable visa applicants from among them.
To make the changes more palatable, the EU has negotiated special agreements with Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and western Balkan countries. These agreements provide for similar visa procedures among Schengen members' embassies, simplified application procedures, and lower visa fees.
In some countries, the fee is waived for certain groups. Even then, for ordinary Ukrainians traveling to Poland, Slovakia, or the Czech Republic, who until now have obtained visas free of charge, this will be a change for the worse.
The citizens of other countries will have to bear the full visa costs. For example, the hapless citizens of Belarus will have to pay about one-third of their average monthly salaries in order to visit neighboring Poland or Lithuania, doubtless to the delight of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, a tyrant who thrives on his people's isolation.
A BETTER NEIGHBORHOOD
What can be done? EU policy-makers are careful to draw a line between visa facilitation and visa liberalization -- namely, visa-free travel. Until now, Brussels has been willing to discuss only the former.
The EU should adopt and make public a set of common standards for visa applicants, as has been proposed by the European Commission. The new standards should ensure that visa procedures are not humiliating to applicants. Nowadays, even the people who obtain visas often feel shamed by the arbitrary decisions of clerks asking personal questions and assuming "evil intentions" on the part of the applicants.
Research has shown that a number of EU consulates apply discriminatory criteria toward certain groups of applicants, such as young women, who in some consulates in Ukraine have visa-refusal rates in excess of 80 percent. Common standards should define clearly the situations in which a visa can be refused and provide for a right of appeal. The standards' application, along with the implementation of the visa-facilitation agreements, should be monitored regularly by the Commission and by independent watchdog organizations.
Consular services should be more accessible to applicants. Part of the solution should be to expand the use of the Internet for making appointments and submitting application documents online. No one should be obliged to pay more than one visit to a consulate, nor to pay supplementary fees to the new sub-contracted agencies now mandated to process Schengen visa applications in Ukraine.
A big step toward visa facilitation could be achieved through consular cooperation among EU member states, whereby a country with consular departments on the ground could undertake to service applicants wishing to travel to any other Schengen member. One such initiative is already underway: the Hungarian consulate in Moldova will be empowered to issue visas for Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Latvia, Estonia, and Slovenia.
A single EU visa-issuing center is also planned for Serbia, and this solution should be emulated elsewhere. It would make a vast difference, filling the gaps in national consular networks and setting high service standards.
Yet making visas easier to obtain is not enough. It is high time to put the question of lifting visa requirements on the agenda of the "enhanced" European Neighborhood Policy for Eastern Europe, which was launched by the German EU presidency in the first half of 2007. Roadmaps should be drawn in partnership with interested "neighbors" and the western Balkans, setting out clear conditions that the countries have to meet in order to have visas abolished.
It is worth remembering that the Central European countries that overthrew communism in 1989 had to wait no more than two years before their citizens were free to travel to Western Europe without visas. Surely the EU in 2008 could extend similar generosity to its current neighbors in Eastern Europe and the western Balkans.
The adoption of the Lisbon Treaty should provide an ideal opportunity to end the period of EU "navel gazing" and allow EU policy-makers to review their visa policies systematically, giving more emphasis to external relations considerations than to internal security obsessions, and sending a clear welcoming signal towards the Schengen neighbors.