European Parliament public hearing on establishing a Community Code on Visas
Brussels, 28 February 2007
- Thank the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs for invitation to this public hearing on the New Community Code on Visas.
- In particular, grateful to Mr Henrik Lax, Rapporteur on this issue, for extending the invitation.
- The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, with its Parliamentarians from 46 European states, believes that the goal should be for all European citizens to have the possibility of travelling within Europe without visa restrictions.
- Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Council of Europe has been working to bring the people of Europe together politically, socially, economically and culturally. The achievements in this should go a long way to reducing the need for visas.
- It is however sad to note that for citizens from eastern Europe, travel abroad is becoming steadily more difficult, complicated and limited. It was possible in the past for citizens of many eastern European countries to travel freely to the new accession countries. This position has now changed. Moldovans, for example, now have to apply for visas to visit neighbouring Romania, reducing in many cases contacts between members of the same ethnic group living on either side of the frontier.
- As a parliamentarian, I have been face to face with many persons who have experienced problems in obtaining visas to enter the European Union. To give one example, students who have applied for courses have had to wait so long for their visas that they have missed the courses for which they had grants to attend …..
- Visa lines therefore are a reality in Europe. The discussions on a New Community Code on Visas is an attempt to establish an exhaustive, transparent and coherent legal framework.
- Central to the issue of visas though is a balancing act:
o On the one hand there is the needs of states to tackle illegal migration and criminality and to promote legitimate border controls
o On the other hand there is the situation of individuals, who need to travel for a range of reasons, easily and cheaply across borders with minimum bureaucratic hurdles.
- The hearing today allows us to look at whether the correct balance has been achieved between state interest and individual interest in the New Community Code on Visas.
- A major concern of the Community Code on Visas is to make the procedure for individual applicants:
- Steps in this direction are to be welcomed.
- To this though there are many other elements which need to be assured if a fair balance between individual needs and state needs are to be taken into account.
- Many of these issues were in fact brought up in 2004 in a Recommendation of the Parliamentary Assembly on "the consequences of European Union enlargement for freedom of movement between Council of Europe member states" and they remain relevant for this discussion on a Community Code on Visas (see Recommendation 1648 (2004)).
o Excessive bureaucracy needs to be avoided (in particular excessive requirements for invitations, details of all places to be visited, translation of documents, etc.)
o Visa fees should be kept at the lowest level possible
o Multiple entry visas should be favoured
o Personal interviews should only be required when necessary and should fully respect the individual’s dignity and privacy
o Applications should be allowed by post or electronic means wherever possible in order to avoid lengthy travel and waiting for interviews.
- To this can be added the need for full reasons to be given when there is a refusal to award a visa and there should be an appeals process in all cases. This is a particular concern raised in relation to the Community Code on Visas.
- There is one Article of the Community Code on Visas that can be particularly welcomed. It is Article 36 which relates to the conduct of staff processing visa applications. The often dehumanising experience and treatment of those applying for a visa is a recurring complaint from applicants. Staff should be courteous and carry out their duties respecting human dignity and without discrimination.
- The goal as mentioned at the beginning of this statement should be to work towards having no visas. As the risk of illegal migration, criminality and other justifications for border controls subside, so should visa requirements.
- From the greater European perspective of 46 member states within the Council of Europe it is important not to create a divided Europe. Visa lines should not become a cause for national and international tension and European citizens should not have to face undue hardships and difficulties in seeking to cross these visa lines. While they have to remain, visas should be made available quickly, efficiently and conveniently in keeping with human dignity.