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Towards a secure, visa-free Europe

‘Visa dialogue' is less about visas than about finding the best way to secure legitimate interests.

The debate on visa liberalisation for the EU's neighbours is highly politicised. Arguments in favour of ‘fortress Europe' often clash with arguments against the emergence of a ‘Schengen wall'. But this debate starts from a false premise. The real question for the EU is not whether it should liberalise visas for its neighbours, but rather how it can best secure its legitimate interests – the effective management of people's movements and the construction of a common European area of justice, liberty and security.

The EU recently liberalised its visa policy for the states of the western Balkans. It is making progress in discussions on visa-related issues with its eastern neighbours and with Russia. And on 15 June, Moldova will start its own dialogue with the EU on visas.

Progress there may be, but the manner in which these issues are debated within the EU creates the impression of divisions between the EU and its neighbours, of insistent demanders on one side of the border and refuseniks on the other. This is a false impression. In reality, both the EU and its neighbours share interests in the way the movement of people is managed.

Visas are not an end in themselves, but rather an instrument to manage people's movements. What the EU therefore needs in the neighbourhood is not so much to maintain a tough visa regime, but to create the conditions that best protect its legitimate interests. That may require it to maintain visas, or it may find better instruments.

An effective system of defences is never confined to a single ‘wall', but to multiple lines of defence. So, instead of a ‘fortress Europe', what the EU needs is a space of justice, liberty and security, protected – and projected – by a range of filters based on effective border-management practices both inside and outside the EU.

This presupposes strong, functioning, well-equipped border-management institutions, demarcated borders, secure documents such as biometric passports and breeder documents that are used to verify other documents (such as birth certificates). It also presupposes an effective fight against corruption in the EU's neighbourhood.

These are difficult goals, but not impossible. Borders and border crossings should be equipped with equipment such as biometric passport readers, CCTV cameras, online interconnections with Interpol databases, night-vision equipment, and infra-red sensors. Border guards need to be well trained and equipped. Not least, countries should respect democratic standards, so that their nationals have no legitimate excuse to claim asylum in the EU.
This is the philosophy that is guiding Moldova as it starts its visa dialogue with the EU. It has already done much to make Moldova a better, more secure partner for the EU. To begin with, Moldova unilaterally abolished visas for EU citizens. In 2008, it became the EU's first eastern partner to introduce biometric passports; from next January, it will issue only biometric passports. It is investing heavily in improving its border-management capacity, through training, equipment and institutional reforms. It has already demarcated two-thirds of its border with Ukraine and is working closely with Ukraine to finalise this process. And it is making some progress in curbing corruption: in the past year, Moldova has improved its ranking in Transparency International's global corruption perception index by 20 places.

Moldova's aim is to establish checks and systems that are effective enough to render visas unnecessary. The EU has legitimate interests and the right to control who enters the EU. The steps we have taken are intended to demonstrate that Moldova is not a demander, but a serious, responsible partner. We are already contributing to EU's security. We will continue to do so.

Vlad Filat is the prime minister of Moldova.