Europeanisation through mobility: visa liberalisation and citizenship regimes

Simonida Kacarska
visa regime

“Don’t worry, I do not come from an NGO, hence, I am not interested in rights”

       -EU member state expert investigating the treatment of persons illegally crossing the borders.

In the last two decades, the citizenship regimes of the states of South Eastern Europe have been affected by a variety of internal and external pressures. At a regional level, the majority of these countries have (re-) built their citizenship regimes during and in the aftermath of conflicts and significant, predominantly forced, population movements. At the same time, one of the major transformative forces affecting these citizenship regimes stems from the process of joining the EU and other international organisations. In this context, the recent negotiations for the visa free regime with the EU which took place between 2008 and 2010 were the most structured form of influence of the EU on this region. All the countries in the region, with the exception of Slovenia and Croatia, had been subject to strict visa requirements since the early 1990s, and thus the removal of the visa barriers was an incomparable benefit that could be offered by the EU. Increasing demands for the liberalisation of the visa regime came both from national governments and think tanks in the region already in the late 1990s. Thus, the potential of the visa liberalisation process to bring about substantial policy change in various aspects of the citizenship regimes was unprecedented.

For the objective of visa liberalisation, the European Commission (EC) and the national governments in these countries held formal talks on fulfilling requirements from the EU with respect to a variety of issues ranging from authenticity of the travel documents to fighting corruption. Ultimately, the visa requirements for tourist travel were lifted for Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro at the end of 2009, and in the following year for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In practice, the criteria (also known as ‘benchmarks’) for visa liberalisation were organised in so called roadmaps for visa liberalisation. These consisted of four areas: document security, illegal migration, public order and security, and external relations and fundamental rights linked to the movement of persons. The last block contained tasks in relation to freedom of movement and identity documents, and citizens’ rights including protection of minorities. These policy areas have a major impact on the status and rights (i.e. access and immunities) dimensions of the citizenship regimes in the region studied.[1]

Citizenship as status

The visa liberalisation process affected the status dimension of the citizenship regimes primarily through the access to documents for various vulnerable groups, notably Roma, internally displaced persons and refugees. The problem of Roma registration has already been raised in numerous academic and NGO research and has been highlighted in earlier CITSEE reports as well. In the visa liberalisation roadmaps the EC required the countries to undertake activities for the registration of Roma. In Macedonia, a special governmental group was established for registering the Roma and facilitating their access to documents. In Montenegro, the EC primarily focused on resolving the status of the displaced and internally displaced persons.[2] This problem was addressed with an amendment of the Law on Foreigners in late 2009, which enabled these groups to obtain the status of a foreigner with permanent residence, including ID cards, but not a passport for which Montenegrin citizenship is required.

Similarly, the access to documents was also in focus when Albania and Bosnia negotiated their visa free travel. For this purpose, in 2009 the new biometric identity cards and passports became necessary for an individual to vote in the elections in Albania, as a way of expediting the introduction of the new personal documents. The circumstances of the Roma were taken into account by subsidizing the costs for the ID cards, as this was also a requirement for the visa liberalisation process. Similar activities were undertaken in Bosnia in terms of registration which facilitated access to documents for these groups.

A specific component of the visa liberalisation process was the status of the holders of Serbian passports residing in Kosovo, who are excluded from the visa-free regime. For the purposes of the visa liberalisation the Serbian government stopped issuing biometric passports to Kosovo residents (including Kosovo Serbs) between June and August 2009. In August 2009 a Coordination Directorate was established in Belgrade, with responsibility for issuing passports to Kosovo residents for whom the visa liberalisation does not apply. In practice, this policy drew dividing lines among several categories of Serbian citizens from Kosovo: first, the ones with residency in Kosovo who obtained biometric passports before the adoption of the above decision; second, the holders of the Directorate passports who cannot travel freely, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who live in Serbia. For the last group, the visa liberalisation applies, since IDPs can obtain passports linked to the location of their temporary residence. The exemption of Kosovo residents from the visa free regime was the most difficult and decisive point for removing Serbia from the Schengen black list.

Citizenship as rights                                                                     

The rights dimension of citizenship was streamlined in the visa liberalisation roadmaps to the requirement that these countries adopt a framework law on anti-discrimination. In most cases however, progress was largely on paper, and was accompanied with problems regarding definitions and implementation. The best example of this weak performance is Macedonia, which was considered as a frontrunner in the visa liberalisation process, and was granted visa liberalisation without having adopted a framework anti-discrimination law. The law was, in fact, adopted in 2010 following the visa liberalisation. Upon its adoption, the law was criticized by numerous human rights organisations for excluding sexual orientation or gender identity as grounds for discrimination.

Montenegro, like Macedonia, did not adopt a Law on anti-discrimination by the time the decision on lifting the visas was endorsed at the end of 2009. The Montenegrin anti-discrimination act was adopted half a year later, in the summer of 2010. Even so, this law was not fully aligned with the EU directives on anti-discrimination. In Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania the anti-discrimination legislation was adopted before the visa liberalisation decision was made. In all these countries there were wide exceptions in the grounds for discrimination and the implementation has been weak. In Bosnia for example, there is widely expressed doubt about the potential for success of the anti-discrimination legislation in light of the pending harmonisation of the Constitution with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the Sejdic-Finci case.  

Kosovo – a delayed road out of isolation

Though it has directly affected the entire region, the visa liberalisation process has also had significant implications for Kosovo, which in 2009 was added to the list of countries whose citizens require visas for travel. Between 2008 and 2011, the EC on a couple of occasions announced the prospect of visa liberalisation, which was delayed causing frustration in the Kosovan society. The Roadmap was finally approved at the EU level at the end of May 2012. In the most optimistic scenario, Kosovan citizens could possibly travel freely to the Schengen zone in 2014.

Numerous reports from international organisations have pointed to the discrimination and difficulties that Kosovan minorities face especially in terms of their reintegration in society. NGOs have expressed their expectations that the offer of a visa liberalisation roadmap is a promising way forward for advancing the position of minorities in the Kosovan society, primarily due to the block dealing with fundamental rights of the visa liberalisation roadmap. However, having in mind the experience with these issues in the other countries and the sidelining of the rights dimension in this process, the prospect of advancing the position of minorities through the visa liberalisation process is unlikely.

The consequences of the visa liberalisation

Visa liberalisation was accompanied by a rise in the number of asylum seekers from the Balkan countries to the EU. Most of the asylum seekers came from Macedonia and Serbia for economic reasons. As reported by Der Spiegel, in Germany in 2010 asylum requests from Macedonia and Serbia accounted for 7,444 applications, whereas a year earlier, just 690 applicants came from the two countries.[3] The rise of the number of asylum seekers from the region instigated action at the European level with proposals for introducing a safeguard clause to suspend the visa liberalisation. The possibility of suspending the visa free travel resulted in pressure on the national governments to control the movement of people. As most of the asylum seekers belong to the Roma and the Albanian communities, the problem very quickly became defined in terms of the ethnic background of the people leaving these countries, which have been subject to stricter checks when exiting the borders of their homelands.

Although mostly limited to the cases of Serbia and Macedonia, the phenomenon also carries a regional dimension due to the intrinsic links between the countries as well as the population movements as a result of the conflicts of the 1990s. For example, in the summer of 2011 there were 400 registered asylum seekers from Bosnia and Herzegovina, a significant increase in comparison to previous years.[4] The Bosnian authorities however, have argued that these people are not citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but from the territory of Kosovo and were falsely representing themselves as citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In response, pressure upon these groups from border officers when exiting Bosnia can be expected. These practices therefore highlight how through the visa liberalisation process, the EU’s conditions can lead to unintended consequences such as discrimination against disadvantaged groups in terms of their freedom of movement.

Visa liberalisation – enabling and disabling

Overall, the visa liberalisation negotiations have had diverse effects on the citizenship regimes of South Eastern Europe. While having contributed to resolving status-related issues of the Roma and displaced persons, there has been no major breakthrough in terms of substantive advancement of anti-discrimination policies. The pressure on the governments of the Western Balkans to take measures in the direction of limiting the freedom of movement of specific groups of citizens has added a layer of discrimination on the basis of ethnic background and social status. As such, the visa liberalisation process has also had unwanted effects on the lived dimensions of the citizenship regimes in the Balkans and has raised concerns over the impact of international actors on the democratisation processes in these countries.

Simonida Kacarska is a ​CITSEE Research Collaborator and PhD candidate in the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds, UK. This is an extended summary of a longer paper that was originally published in the CITSEE Working Paper Series and is available for download here.

[1] According to Joppke, citizenship at the same time encompasses three overlapping dimensions: status, rights and identity, denoting respectively access, immunities and behavioural aspects. The CITSEE paper and this study are interested in the analysis of the first two dimensions. See JOPPKE, C. 2007. Transformation of Citizenship: Status, Rights, Identity. Citizenship Studies, 11, 37-48.

[2] The term ‘displaced person’ denotes people who fled from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the first half of the 1990s, while ‘internally displaced persons’ denotes people that fled from Kosovo at the end of the 1990s.

[3] ANGELOS, J. 2011. Wave of Roma Rejected as Asylum Seekers Spiegel [Online]. Available:,1518,764630,00.html 

[4] 2011d. Bosnian Asylum Seekers in Belgium to be Repatriated Balkan Insight [Online]. Available: