Since December 15, 2010, Albanians can travel without a visa to all countries in the Schengen zone. This means that all Albanian citizens with a biometric passport can stay in 22 countries of the EU and four other countries for a maximum period of 90 days within a period of 180 days.
Within EU legislation, this visa exemption was put into place by amending EC Regulation No 539/2001 from March 15, 2001 through EU Regulation No. 1091/2010, in which Albania was moved from the list of third countries which require visa to the list of third countries that are exempt from that requirement.
Recently, the Dutch police and public prosecution argued in a memo to the Ministry of Justice and Security that in response to the steep rise in crime perpetrated by Albanian citizens in the Netherlands, mostly related to drug trafficking and money laundering, suspending or revoking the visa liberalization for Albanian citizens would prevent these criminals from “settling” in the Netherlands.
The opposition immediately responded to this news, with former President Bujar Nishani warning that the EU regulations would allow the Netherlands to initiate the suspension of the visa waiver. In a tweet Albanian Foreign Affairs Minister, Ditmir Bushati, attacked the opposition by calling them “the desperate cicadas of June 25 that pass the fever of August with cries about the return of visa!”
The question, however, is whether the argument of the Dutch police and public prosecution would be enough reason, within the EU legal framework, to indeed suspend the visa liberalization for Albanian citizens that has been in place since December 2010.
The suspension mechanism for visa liberalization agreements, including the one with Albania, is regulated through EC Regulation 1289/2013. According to this regulation, the visa exemption for a third country may be temporarily suspended “in an emergency situation.” Such a situation may occur because of a sudden increase of irregular immigrants, asylum requests, or rejected readmission applications.
Under Regulation 1289/2013, member states have to request the European Commission to suspend the visa waiver. In other words, individual member states cannot automatically and on their own reinstate the visa regime.
Already this should cause quite some concern for the Albanian government in the sense that Albanians were the largest illegal immigrant group in the EU during 2016. Last year, 42,600 Albanians, 20% of the total number of illegal immigrants, were repatriated. Albanian illegal immigration thus remains a large problem for the entire EU.
However, on February 27, 2017, the European Council revised the suspension mechanism for visa liberalization agreements, including the one with Albania. This amendment allows the European Commission or a simple majority of member states to suspend the visa liberalization. If a simple majority makes such a request, the EC immediately has to temporarily suspend the visa waiver for 9 months, during which the EC has to negotiate with the third country to come to a solution. If no such solution is found, the suspension is extended with 18 months.
The amendment also has extended the “grounds for suspension,” including “a decrease in cooperation on readmission, a substantial increase in the refusal rate of readmission applications, including for third-country nationals in transit, and a substantial increase in the risk to public policy or the internal security of the member states.”
Moreover, the amendment envisions a “monitoring mechanism,” “with the purpose of ensuring that third countries which have been granted visa exemption following a visa liberalisation dialogue continue to fulfil the criteria which were the basis for granting visa free status.”
What does this amendment mean in relation to the Dutch memo?
First, the reasons that the memo proposes to revoke the visa waiver for Albanians are the rise in Albanian crime. This would fit the recently expanded grounds of suspension, which include the risk to internal security.
Second, already for several years, illegal immigration from Albania into the EU is a major problem, the roots of which are little addressed by the Albanian government. This may be a reason for other EU countries to be supportive of any Dutch proposal to reinstate the visa regime.
If the new Dutch coalition government, which is currently still being formed, decides to adopt the recommendation from the police and public prosecution and starts a lobby with other EU countries to gather a simple majority to suspend the visa liberalization with Albania, the European Commission will be forced to adopt this for 9 months, and start negotiations with the Albanian government.
There is already a broad majority of Dutch political parties that is against Albanian membership of the EU. In an interview from 2013 then left-wing Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, however, was reluctant to have the Netherlands do the “dirty work.” Moreover, immigration and asylum were hot and divisive issues during the recent electoral campaign and negotiations for the new coalition government.
Much will depend on which party will eventually get the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security and the willingness of the Dutch government to do the “dirty work” for other EU countries. In the meantime, Timmermans has become First Vice-President of the European Commission, and with a new Christian-right government in place soon, he may end up implementing a policy that four years ago he felt reluctant about.