Ukrainians and dogs not permitted. Restrictive visa policies do not allow for free movement of millions of Europeans
Asked to draw a political map of Europe, a cartographer would have to choose which features to emphasize and which to leave out. Some of his work's possible results, such as the map showing the member states of the European Union, are well-anchored in Western Europe's public consciousness. Others are not. One excellent example of a map fairly unknown in Western Europe (yet known by heart by those living on the continent's margins) is the one depicting the complex system of visa regimes, which had been evolving in Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Obviously, in the times of Schengen, it is impossible to see the question of visa regulations independent from the existence of the European Union. Yet the European `map of visa regulations' is not only the gloomy opposite of the optimistic vision of a peacefully reunited Europe, but also a rather complex piece of cartography. Its subject is not inclusion and voluntary co-operation, but exclusion and barriers to mobility. Full of irregularities, exceptions and paradoxes, it might be too great a challenge for our cartographer to form a comprehensive map out of the maze of regulations.
Centre and Periphery
In the case of the map showing the European Union, every possible change of borders is anticipated by intensive public debates. The European Union, already in the midst of the discussion on the chances of a “European perspective” for Turkey, is confronting the emergence of the next grand debate, imposed on it by the brave demonstrators in Kiev's Maydan Nezelezhnosty square.
In remarkable disparity to the sudden interest in the orange revolution, most people in western European states hardly noticed that the very same people who demonstrated their adherence to western values in mass protests against Viktor Yushchenko's stolen victory have for many years been treated by the West with exclusion and neglect. As a consequence of this policy, the extent to which Ukrainians were allowed to travel freely became year by year more identical with the state borders of Ukraine. Last year, those new member countries, who had introduced visa requirements in reaction to demands from Brussels, were followed by EU candidate Romania, which manifested its political advancement also by introducing visas for people from Serbia, another neighbour country of Romania which has only recently gotten rid of its dictator.
Considering the unfriendly gestures from Brussels and its new allies, one might find it remarkable that Ukrainians did not cease to dream of themselves becoming a part of the golden west. There might be a sober awakening. If Brussels does not rethink its exclusive policy before Poland and Hungary join the Schengen Treaty, there will be only one destination left to which the heroes from the Maydan Nezelezhnosty can travel easily: Russia.
Mr Gorbatchev, open this gate!
During the Cold War, western politicians did not miss an opportunity to point out the communists' crime of imprisoning their own citizens. In 1989, growing frustrations made hundreds of thousands fill the streets of Leipzig. Protesting for democracy and freedom, they were also driven by the desire to set their feet in a country other than Eastern Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
Without open borders, it is hardly imaginable that the transition era following the revolutions of 1989 would have turned into a success story. Open borders, of course, meant also peddlers, prostitutes, car thieves, and illegal workers. Yet from a historical perspective, no one will seriously negate that these temporary nuisances are outdone by the benefits of the free exchange of peoples, ideas and commercial goods. In the light of this proven historical significance, it seems strange that hardly anyone in Western Europe is scrutinizing whether the restrictive visa policies towards those countries in Europe, which lack a realistic perspective for membership, is really indispensable.
Looking for the reasons for this ignorance, one realizes the enormous cultural and social distance between those who decide about visa regulations and the affected individuals. To a politician in the German Bundestag, the dream of some youngsters in Ukraine, who would love to hitchhike to Italy or the Cote d'Azur (not to mention one of these youngster's friends, who would love to make some money working illegally on a German construction site), might sound understandable yet rather insignificant, if weighted against his voters' fear of a growing crime rate and an invasion of millions of workers willing to work under the worst possible conditions.
In addition to this, the enormous asymmetry of power renders decision-makers unable to realize how heavy Western Europe's protections against unwanted immigrants weigh on the outcast nations' collective consciousness. This lack of understanding became obvious in a recent event in the German Foreign Ministry, where politicians and journalists discussed the situation in Bosnia - Herzegovina ten years after the Dayton treaty. In the public discussion following the panel, one senior worker of a German humanitarian organisation criticized the European Union's restrictive visa-regimes for making young people feel imprisoned with no hope of release: “How should young Bosnians cherish democracy, if they are not allowed to go abroad and experience on their own how a democracy works?” One of the present officers of the Foreign Ministry did not accept the blame: “We do everything to enable cultural exchange. No one will be refused a visa, who wants to come here for studying. But the problems of Bosnia will have to be solved on Bosnian soil.”
Imagine a young Bosnian from Mostar, who had just enjoyed a semester in Marburg, Greifswald or Heidelberg. After returning home, what might be his next foreign destination? Some years ago, there was only one country, where Bosnian citizen could travel without having a visa. Today, the list contains twelve countries: Croatia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Malaysia, Samoa, the Seychelles, Serbia and Montenegro, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, and Turkey. In addition to this, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, and Macedonia, are welcoming Bosnians without visa if they present a business invitation or personal guarantee. Is it really so difficult to imagine how the feeling of being locked out translates into a collective trauma?
Mr Fischer, make sure that these gates are closed!
In Germany, the conservative opposition recently pushed the topic of visa regulations into the spotlight of the public debate. A newly-established parliamentary commission is assigned to investigate the political responsibility for the alleged mass misuse of a Schengen visa issued in the German embassies of Kiev, Moscow, Tirana, and Pristina. In the centre of the controversy stands Ludger Volmer, a green MP and former state minister in the foreign ministry who signed in March 2000 a decree meant to liberalize the issuing of visas in the German representations. According to the controversial “Volmer decree”, embassy personal were told to issue visa even in cases where the officers had some doubts about the good intentions behind the applying persons' travel plans. Now it can be read, in every German newspapers, how ten thousands of undesirable Ukrainians cheated the German state by applying with business invitations from German companies, which were doing no other business than selling invitations to Ukrainians. Realizing their chance to damage the green guru and popular foreign minister Joschka Fischer, the opposition accuses the government of directly supporting organized human trafficking. The foreign minister would be personally responsible that Germany's gates were wide open for ten thousand “criminals, undocumented workers, prostitutes, and terrorists”.
One does not have to be a German opposition politician to be concerned upon realizing how creatively would-be immigrants are cheating our state to gain the desired travel permit. In spite of this, the scandal around Mr Volmer is built on a wrong assumption. The wars in the Balkans and the collapse of the Soviet economy led to the pauperisation of entire societies. The European Union should at least realize the two existing options: Either to give the underdogs a chance and open the borders for visitors (even if this, surely, will be accompanied by an increase of Eastern crime and work migration), or, driven by fear of crime and illegal migration, to limit the contacts to a minimum.
Both for ethical and practical reasons, the European Union should endeavour not to lock itself up from those Europeans which do not have a perspective of joining the Union anytime soon. The current visa regimes provide an illusion of security rather than real security. In the same time, they do provide an illusion of open borders, while contributing a great deal to the increasing isolation of the people living on the continent's margins. If considering the huge amount of people who want to travel from there to the West (an entity, which includes already at this point Poland and soon Romania), one must understand that a handful of embassy employees has no real chance to pick out the rotten apples from the basket of honest travellers (the German opposition might describe the job rather as picking honest travellers from a basket of rotten apples). The current visa regimes are a bad compromise between the contradicting objectives of openness and security, since they are overcome easiest for those who have money and connections. Aside of some noble participants in scientific conferences, these qualities are mainly found among successful criminals of all kind. Those who have some money but no connections can at least use the services of various professional intermediaries. This way the regulations intended to protect Western Europe from an invasion of criminals became the basis for the mushrooming of a semi-criminal network between Eastern European travel agencies and their Western European business partners.
Europe should be realistic and accept that it cannot lock itself up completely from the eastern underdogs. Neither high-tech borders nor restrictive visa regimes will bring us complete security. But the increased exclusion of the undesirables reproduces the collective feeling of despair, which is one of the reasons why people want to leave in the first place. Thanks to modern information technology, efficient border controls would be sufficient to refuse those who in the past committed crimes, were caught working illegally, or overstayed their tourist visits. Last but not least, the European Union should be aware of one fact: It is more attractive for a guest to return home voluntarily, if he can freely decide on a further visit.