EU can liberalise visa regimes and stay secure

EU OBSERVER In March this year, EU leaders agreed with their Turkish counterpart on a new strategy for dealing with irregular migration. Two months later, it is clear that the strategy has been successful – so far. The numbers of dangerously overcrowded boats landing on Greek islands have fallen radically and irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route have come to an end. We should not, though, rest on our laurels.

All points agreed with Turkey need to be efficiently implemented, not just the migration one. Financial support for the refugees in Turkey is available, accession negotiations are ongoing – but the spotlight is on the sensitive and difficult issue of whether and when we should lift the visa requirements for Turkish citizens entering the EU.

The European Commission published its third report on the fulfilling of the 2013 Turkish visa liberalisation roadmap in the first week of May. The report clearly states that Turkish authorities have not yet met all conditions necessary for the visa lifting. The Czech Republic is generally in favour of lifting visa requirements for citizens of our partner countries. We support not only Turkey but also Georgia, Ukraine and Kosovo in their efforts to achieve the visa liberalisation.

Nevertheless, we must always insist on the fulfilment of all criteria and benchmarks in the specific Roadmap. If we did not, we could jeopardise the security of our borders and, hence, our citizens. At the same time, bearing in mind the importance of the visa issue for our Turkish partners, we must do our best to find a viable solution to facilitate the implementation of our deal with Turkey once the conditions established in 2013 are fulfilled.

Lessons from abroad

With these premises in mind we are faced with a tricky challenge: how to square the visa-liberalisation process with ensuring security. The key argument in the political discussion about lifting visa requirements is that the visa application process gives us an opportunity to verify who wants to come to Europe. However, there are easy ways to collect similar information even without a visa-application process – if we learn from others such as the United States, Canada or Australia.

Anybody who travelled to these countries while holding a passport of any of the countries under the visa-waiver programme remembers filling out an application for a travel authorisation – allowing the US, Canadian or Australian government to collect all necessary information for a security check before the person shows up at the borders.

Given the complexities of the visa-liberalisation process, primarily – but not only – with Turkey, Europe should think hard how to be open (and doing away with visa requirements for Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia and Kosovo) while keeping access to the detailed information about people planning to cross the EU borders. An EU Travel Information and Authorisation System – ETIAS – would collect all relevant information regarding an intended journey of those without a visa in their passport.

The automatic processing of this information – together with significantly strengthened entry/exit system as part of making the European border genuinely smart – could help border guards in their assessment of third-country visitors arriving for a short stay. The European Commission was already considering the establishment of the travel authorisation system in 2011, and produced a policy paper on the matter.

Unfortunately, the paper was then put aside. Now is the time to get the paper back on the table, discuss the idea thoroughly and come up with a proposal that would serve both our security and the easing of the visa-liberalisation process with our partners. The Czech Republic stands ready to actively contribute to such a process because both these objectives are on the top of our priority list.