In the run-up to the JEF-Europe Federal Committee (the European level of the Young European Federalists) in Malta two interesting issues were raised. One was that a potential bureau member was refused a visa to attend the event. The other was a Conference and Seminar discussing some of the issues of migration and the difficulties it posed.
During one of the panel debates, a discussion took place about the purpose and charges visas might be linked to and what the effects were. Historical ties between countries might lead to favourable visa prices, while barriers might be lowered to increase tourism. Yet the actual costs of processing a visa vary hugely from country to country and this must also be reflected in the fee or be transferred to the native tax payer. A visa can also become an “entry tax” in its own right. So already it becomes a complex picture.
A few weeks later I found myself in Tirana where, overnight, suddenly there are signs and posters proclaiming the great news that Albania has joined the countries which can enter the Schengen zone without a visa. Politicians seem to consider it a big issue for the country, both in Albania and the rest of Europe. In reality most people I saw were vaguely bemused. Many of them had been to the Schengen zone already and some said that a UK visa was far more difficult to get and as a result less interesting as a tourist destination, the net result - no change of plans, travel or otherwise. But then perhaps for the politicians it is a more significant step towards EU membership.
Overnight, suddenly there are signs and posters proclaiming the great news that Albania has joined the countries which can enter the Schengen zone without a visa.
This is a step, but it is not like joining the Schengen zone. There are ample examples of countries, like Norway, who are members of Schengen but not of the EU, and the UK which is a member of the EU but not of Schengen. This seems to reflect that the UK historically has better links with the other members of the Commonwealth, and that, were it to join the Schengen zone some of those bilateral arrangements might be put at risk.
This is a step, but also one which might be pushed back. There were warnings in the press releases after the announcement that showed, should there be problems, it would be simple enough to reinstate the visa agreement for Albania.
So why this step forward, whilst Turkey still waits in the wings? All of the other candidates and potential candidates for EU membership in the region are covered now and only Kosovo remains outside the visa agreement. This shows that exceptions can be made when things get messy (Cyprus, Macedonia etc), but is the political will there too?