The European Commission has announced plans to simplify the bloc's visa rules for non-Europeans. The new guidelines are designed mainly to attract more business and tourism.
Cecilia Malmström appeared pleased as she presented plans for simpler rules to obtain a Schengen area visa. "Europe needs a smarter visa policy," the EU Home Affairs Commissioner said in Brussels earlier this week.
The planned measures include cutting the time authorities take to decide on a visa - from 15 to ten days. Frequent travelers will then be able to receive multiple-entry permits for up to three years. In future, visa applications can also be made online. The reform also forsees allowing border patrols to hand out short-term visas, which, according to article 33 of the draft law, is designed to encourage more travel to the bloc.
That measure in particular irritates Monika Hohlmeier, a lawmaker with the conservative European Peoples Party (EPP) in the European Parliament. "Issuing short-stay visas at the border opens the door to fraud," she told DW.
"Normally, checking the most important data takes three days." Hohlmeier believes the rule would not just boost tourism, but promote crime as well. "The door is wide open to a person the momment he or she enters the Schengen zone." The German lawmaker criticized that too many people already overstay longer than they are allowed to in the EU, and simplifying visa regulations would only exacerbate that trend.
But Ska Keller welcomes the draft law, pointing out that relaxed visa rules mainly affect business travelers and tourists. "The proposals are really good, and we've been waiting for them for a long time," the Green European parliamentarian told DW.
The reforms are mainly expected to benefit the economy. "In general, transparent, speedy Europe-wide visa processing is good for the economy," Hohlmeier agrees. The EU body expects the measures to bring an extra 130 billion euros in income for hotels, restaurants and shops, and to create 1.3 million new jobs in the tourism sector.
"What‘s important is that the changes benefit people who want to travel to the EU, and who have had to overcome major obstacles up until now," Keller said, pointing out the planned option of one-year visas to tour the bloc, the only restriction being that a person can stay in one state no more than 90 days within a half year. Keller also welcomed the planned cancellation of mandatory overseas health insurance - "a great expense" – that non-EU members had to get.
In fact, that mandatory insurance kept many visitors away. 17 million people applied for an EU visa in 2013, Cecilia Malmström said, but "at least 6.6 million potential travelers did not enter the Schengen area in that same year due to lengthy and costly procedures in the existing visa regime. "
This is not only a problem for those who are waiting, the Commissioner said, but also implies a serious loss for Europe‘s economy – and we don't reap the benefits that they could bring."
Efficient border management
The reform is long overdue, Ska Keller said. "Current visa procedures are much too complicated; they're a challenge for people who want to vacation in Europe, or visit someone," Keller pointed out, adding that every step that faciltiates the process is more than welcome.
The new rules would apply to the 22 EU states that fully adhere to the Schengen Agreement on passport-free travel. That does not include Britain. For the past 29 years, the Schengen member states have gradually dismantled passport controls on their borders. On June 14, 1985 five of the then ten EU member states met in the Luxembourg town of Schengen to sign a treaty on the abolition of border controls.
Meanwhile, non-EU states Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland have also joined the Schengen area. Non-EU travelers often are still subject to lengthy, complex and costly visa procedures if they want to enter the Schengen area. Citizens of select nations, including the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Australia, are exempt: within a time period of 180 days, they can travel visa-free in the Schengen zone for 90 days.
The draft law must be approved by the European Parliament and the EU member states, but Monika Hohlmeier doubts the proposals will be accepted in their current form. In particular, the lawmaker doubts that member states will rubber-stamp article 33. "Apart from simplifying visa procedures, we should have an electronic travel authorization system like ESTA in the US, und the Smart Borders entry/exit system," Hohlmeier said. The EU will have to wait at least five more years for the proposed Smart Borders program, however.
"Supposedly promoting tourism at the expense of our security - that's something we can't do," Hohlmeier emphasized.