The European Union is ratcheting up pressure on Serbia and Macedonia to stop a rise in migrants from those countries arriving in the EU and making unfounded asylum claims.
The increase in migration appears to follow the ending three years ago of a requirement that visitors from the western Balkans have visas to visit the Schengen zone.
The interior ministers from the EU’s member states are to meet in Luxembourg on Thursday (25 October) and are expected to issue a warning to the five countries of the western Balkans that are exempt from the visa requirement (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia). Hans-Peter Friedrich, Germany’s interior minister, has called for the immediate suspension of the visa-free regime for Serbia and Macedonia.
Earlier this month, Friedrich and the interior ministers of Austria, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands wrote to Cecilia Malmström, the European commissioner for home affairs, complaining about the burden that the increase in unfounded claims put on their asylum systems and asking for the urgent adoption of a new suspension mechanism before the end of the year.
The mechanism, which is currently being negotiated by member states and MEPs, would allow the EU to react swiftly to a sharp rise in asylum claims by temporarily re-introducing visa requirements for citizens of a particular country, something that is not possible under current rules.
Malmström will present the ministers with the Commission’s latest report on the migration situation in the western Balkans.
A spokesman for the European Commission declined to provide figures about asylum claims from Serbia and Macedonia and stressed that over the past three years the problem had affected all five Balkan states whose citizens can enter the EU without a visa, not just Serbia and Macedonia. But the German authorities say that more than 7,000 citizens of Serbia and Macedonia have applied for asylum since January, with a sharp rise in September, when 1,395 Serbian citizens and 1,040 Macedonian citizens applied for asylum – double the figure in August. Not a single application has been recognised this year, according to the interior ministry.
Observers believe that the migration is seasonal and that many Roma – the most vulnerable group in Serbia and the group that makes up the bulk of Serbian asylum claims in the EU – are drawn by the prospect of heated accommodation and financial support that they receive while their claims are being processed.
At next week’s meeting, the interior ministers will defer to February a decision on letting Romania and Bulgaria join the Schengen area.
Member states want to wait for a report on Romania from the Commission, expected in December. The Dutch government is in caretaker mode, while the formation of a government is negotiated after September’s election, and hence does not want to make any commitment on the future accession of the two countries. Several other governments share the Dutch doubts about the rule of law in Romania.
The interior ministers will also discuss financial assistance to Syrian refugees. Turkey has complained about a lack of support from other countries as it deals with some 100,000 Syrians who have fled the violence.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, close to 106,000 Syrians have registered in Jordan.
In all, 340,000 Syrians have sought assistance in neighbouring countries.
The UN’s regional refugee response plan has received pledges for less than one-third of the $488 million (€375m) it needs.
Member states’ justice ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Friday (26 October) will have their first discussion of a proposal from the European Commission on revising the EU’s data-protection regime. Negotiations on the Commission’s proposal, made in January, are in their early stages.
Theresa May, the UK’s home affairs minister, who is from the Conservative Party, the senior partner in the coalition government, announced on Monday (15 October) that she plans to opt out of 130 EU measures on judicial and police co-operation, including the European arrest warrant, in 2014.
The UK and Ireland negotiated the possibility of such an opt-out as part of the Lisbon treaty. The opt-out would apply to measures agreed between 1992, when the Maastricht treaty took effect, and 2007.
The Liberal Democrats, who are the junior partner in the coalition government, support the European arrest warrant and are expected to oppose the move. It would be open to the UK to opt back into certain measures.
Tanja Fajon, a centre-left Slovenian MEP who championed the lifting of visa requirements in the European Parliament, said that re-introducing visas would be “a major step backwards” for the countries of the western Balkans. She called on countries with high numbers of unfounded asylum claims to speed up their asylum procedures, which would make applications less attractive for economic migrants.
Speaking on Monday (15 October), Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s prime minister, offered to pay the costs incurred by the EU’s member states in dealing with unfounded asylum claims from Serbians. He said that this would be “less damaging” than the re-introduction of visa requirements.