The European Commission is examining German visas issued to eastern Europeans, which are at the heart of a political scandal in the country, to determine whether they violated European law.
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A spokesman for the EU's Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini confirmed Sunday that the EU was looking into the matter. "The commission has launched an investigation to find out if Germany's actions concerning the visas were in breach of European law," said spokesman Friso Roscam Abbing, in an interview to the German mass-selling daily Bild.
The visa scandal involves Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister and most popular politician, and the decision by his ministry in 1999 to ease conditions for citizens of the former Soviet bloc to acquire German visas.
Germany's conservative opposition has charged that "hundreds of thousands" of illegal immigrants from eastern Europe -- Ukraine in particular -- were able to enter the country on tourist visas between 2000 and 2003, many of them with the help of organized crime networks. The incoming numbers apparently included hundreds of illegal immigrants, prostitutes and human traffickers.
The German parliament has started an investigation into the alleged mass smuggling of eastern Europeans into Germany.
The inquiry by the commission in Brussels, the European Union's executive arm, will verify whether German directives were in accordance with EU regulations. In 1990, the Schengen accord established a European zone for the free movement of people and required member countries to maintain control of their borders at the zone's common exterior.
Flood of visa-holders
In March 2000, the so-called Volmer directive, named after Germany's former secretary of state Ludger Volmer, encouraged embassies to cut through the red tape for visas following complaints to the ministry that it was too strict in dispensing visas in decisions concerning family reunions and sickness.
People wait at the German embassy in the Ukrainian capital of Kiew to apply for a visa.
Volmer then reportedly issued a decree that, when in doubt, embassy workers should decide in favor of issuing a visa to an applicant.
The consequence of this directive was a drastic increase in the number of visas authorized by German embassies around the world. A flood of applicants followed. In 2001, the number of visas approved by the embassy in Kiev, Ukraine alone reached 400,000. It was a large number, considering the 190 German embassies worldwide issue only 3 million visas each year on average.
The directive was cancelled in March 2003.