BRUSSELS — Priorities of the new EU Action Plan on the Western Balkans include strengthening border management and achieving the alignment of visa policies in order to respond to the increased number of irregular crossing attempts reported at the EU borders with the Western Balkans countries.
The European Commission presented the Action Plan on 5 December, ahead of the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Tirana and following the EU-Western Balkans Justice and Home Affairs Ministerial of 3 November in Tirana, during which the Western Balkans ministers “committed to a unified, comprehensive approach.”
Irregular migration remains one of the greatest concerns of the EU and the Western Balkans countries are key partners in managing irregular migration, due to the renewed relevance of the Western Balkans route. The Action Plan states that from the beginning of 2022, “almost 130,000 attempted irregular border crossings have been reported by Frontex at the EU external borders on all Western Balkan routes, three times higher than in the same period in 2021.”
“The Western Balkan route has been in our focus for a while now. At the Home Affairs meeting on 13 October, Ministers agreed on a common approach. This was further elaborated at the Prague and Berlin processes. In Tirana at the start of November, with Western Balkan partners, we made progress on visa alignment and the fighting against migrant smuggling. But challenges remain. With this Action Plan we are now building on our good cooperation and we provide a path forward for continuing to work closely together,” said Ylva Johansson, Commissioner for Home Affairs.
One of the main reasons for the increase outlined by the document is the non-alignment of visa policies of several Western Balkans countries with the EU visa policy, which is recognized as a priority in the Action Plan. Continuing causes of illegal migration are also economic pressures and ongoing conflicts.
The document presented by the Commission “aims to strengthen the cooperation on migration and border management with partners in Western Balkans in light of their unique status with EU accession perspective and their continued efforts to align with EU rules.”
The Action Plan focuses on 5 pillars under which 20 operational measures are proposed. The 5 pillars are strengthening border management along the routes; swift asylum procedures and support reception capacity; fighting migrant smuggling; enhancing readmission cooperation and returns and achieving visa policy alignment. The Action plan states that the Commission will increase funds allocated through IPA III to assist the Western Balkans partners in managing irregular migration.
Measures to support migration management include strengthening the role of Frontex, enabled by the renewed status agreements negotiated with Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia, which will allow Frontex to participate in joint operations in the region to improve their border control capacities.
Moreover, the EU will use the increased funds within the IPA III framework to strengthen their asylum procedures and reception capacities. The Action Plan also identifies actions to be taken in the EU to improve asylum procedures, such as pilot projects in interested Member States for fast asylum procedures.
In order to fight migrant smuggling on the Western Balkans route, an Anti-Smuggling Operational Partnership was launched on the Ministerial in Tirana. The Action Plan calls for making use of the newly established EUROPOL Operational Task Force which aims at tackling illegal migration at the Hungary-Serbia border and considering the establishment of similar task forces operating on other EU external borders.
The Action Plan considers full implementation of the readmission agreements as the “backbone of return and readmission cooperation.” In light of that, it stresses the need for organizing Joint Readmission Committees with Western Balkan Countries, such as the one held with Serbia on 24 November, to improve bilateral cooperation on the readmission.
Together with the Action Plan, the Commission also presented the Fifth report on visa suspension on the monitoring of the EU visa-free regime with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, as well as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. While the report states that the requirements for visa-free regime continue to be fulfilled, it also identifies a strong need for swift alignment of the Western Balkans countries’ visa regimes towards the third countries with the EU visa regime.
The Action Plan draws upon this report and calls for “reinstating and effectively implementing visa requirements for third countries in line with the EU visa policy” and active monitoring of the actions taken by the Western Balkans partners regarding visa policy.