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Simplifying the visa process

Stephanie Höppner / csc January 13, 2013

Visa applications take too long, representatives from German industry say. They argue that companies lose money when a foreign business partner cannot travel. And they have concrete proposals to reform the system.

Close-up page of passport with Schengen visa. (Copyright: katatonia/Fotolia.com)
Image: katatonia/Fotolia

A deal worth millions was almost closed at a German agricultural fair, but urgently needed visas could not be issued to the foreign business partner. The telephone number in the documents was wrong, so embassy officials couldn't reach anyone.

This is not a unique case, according to Andreas Metz, a spokesman for the German business community's Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations. He cannot understand why old rules are followed to the word.

"The visa system is actually a relic of the 19th century," Metz told DW. "Today, there is a completely different method to ensure security, namely through a biometric passport and computerized information, which impede travel less significantly."

He hopes that visa requirements will be done away with eventually.

Fear of organized crime

The discussion about unrestricted travel is also being discussed at the government level. German Economics Minister Philipp Rösler is pushing for more freedom. He recently called for Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich to give up his opposition to a more liberal issuing of visas.

German Economy Minister Philipp Rösler(Photo: Maja Hitij/dapd)
German Economics Minister Philipp Rösler wants to change the rulesImage: dapd

The Interior Ministry's main argument is security. The ministry is in favor of simplifying the visa application procedure, but it is against getting rid of visas. It has to ensure that aspects related to security and migration policy are preserved, the ministry said.

There are also doubts about ending the Schengen visa requirement for countries like Russia and Turkey. The Schengen area is a region of Europe with no border controls for people traveling in that area, and includes 26 countries.

"In the case of Russia, findings suggest that increased travel could be exploited to expand activities in organized crime," a ministry spokesperson told DW.

Also, illegal immigrants often come from Russia and Turkey, or use the two countries as their transit route to Europe.

Finland issues significantly more visas

The contradiction between security and relaxing restrictions is absurd for business industry lobbyists, like Andreas Metz. "The visa debate in this country focuses too narrowly on possible abuse," he said.

A photo of Andreas Metz
Andreas Metz criticizes Germany's visa policyImage: Ost-Ausschuss der Deutschen Wirtschaft

Other countries within the Schengen region are more generous, he added. "Every year, around one million visas are issued to Russian citizens from the Finnish consulate in St. Petersburg. By comparison, 340,000 visas a year are issued by Germany," Metz said. Even countries like Italy and Spain, which rely on their booming tourism industries, are more liberal, he noted.

In 2011, the German authorities agreed to simplify the visa application process to a certain extent. Since then, external service providers can also accept applications so that waiting times have been reduced considerably. Offices offering these services have opened in Turkey, and one just opened in Moscow - more will follow. But this change does not go far enough, the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations says. The scope of EU rules should be expanded, according to a paper drawn up by the committee. It recommends that applications be accepted on the Internet or at the border and proposes the removal of the fee.

Business suffers due to Germany's strict visa policy, says Metz. About 20 percent of all companies with business partners in Russia have lost a contract, according to a poll conducted by the committee. "There are also cases in which a deal could not close because someone was unable to travel to meet business partners," Metz said.

Red tape costs million

In addition, industry representatives also criticize the cost of visa applications for the countries involved. "We reckon that the visa requirement alone between Germany and Russia costs the two countries 160 million euros annually," Metz says.

A typical application takes four to six weeks to be processed. The rejection rate for Russian citizens is low - around 1.4 percent - and most often, technical errors are to blame.

A column tower in petrochemical plant at twilight (Copyright: mmmx)
Is Germany's visa policy bad for business?Image: Fotolia/mmmx

Just such cases regularly go before Germany's administrative court. "In Berlin, even with normal visa process complaints, we have cases that take15 to 21 months," legal expert Rolf Gutmann told DW.

And complications could also come up if the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (IHK) has given the green light for the visa, the expert who also co-publishes the magazine "Immigration Law" added.

Damage to Germany's image

Drastic cases are less typical in the IT industry. The bureaucratic processes are more of a hurdle, says Stephan Pfisterer at BITKOM, the umbrella group representing the IT industry. "There are visa problems occasionally with visitors from Eastern Europe, and sometimes from East Asia," he noted.

Visitor appointments must be planned and coordinated well in advance and short-notice meetings sometimes cannot take place. "That is, of course, not advantageous for Germany's image as a business location - no question about that," he said.