After February 17, 2023, Albanian citizens will be able to travel to China without a visa. This diplomatic as well as strategic step has triggered the reaction of former Foreign Minister Tritan Shehu, who warns of serious geopolitical consequences for Albania. Faktoje brings an analysis on the expected economic benefits, but also on the inconsistency of this decision with the EU visa policy, experts say. Meanwhile, no representative of the parliamentary majority has agreed to comment on the issue and, in particular, on the strengthening of China’s role in the Western Balkans and the implications for security issues.
By Council of Ministers Legal Acts of December 27, 2022, the agreement between the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Albania and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on reciprocal visa exemption for holders of official passports and ordinary passports was approved in principle . However, former Foreign Minister and current Democratic Party MP Tritan Shehu criticized this decision.
“Visa withdrawal for China, an unforgivable political mistake with serious consequences for Albania. This is a very negative signal for the EU and our integration path,” Tritan Shehu said in a post on Facebook on December 28.
Mr. Shehu’s statement contains an inherent concern about the impact of the decision to lift visas for China on the European integration process and on the market situation.
Faktoje sent a request for information to the Media and Information Agency regarding this decision, where we asked him on what evaluation basis the Albanian government made the decision on the mutual revocation of visas with the People’s Republic of China.
Request for information sent to Media and Information Agency, February 6, 2023.
In this regard, we received a response from the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs on February 13, which states, among other things:
“We recall that the conclusion of this agreement was necessary to respect the principle of reciprocity between the parties, as Chinese citizens were unilaterally allowed to enter the territory of Albania without a visa, by Decision No. 858 of 29.12.2021 of Council of Ministers “On the Establishment of the Criteria, Procedures and Documents for the Entry, Stay and Treatment of Foreigners in the Republic of Albania”, as amended.”
Faktoje spoke with experts on integration issues, who explained from their point of view the advantages and disadvantages of free movement between the two countries.
The Executive Director of the European Movement in Albania, Gladis Gjipali, sees the decision positively, especially in terms of bilateral trade relations.
“I think the decision is in line with the country’s interests, based on the economic and commercial relations, as well as the historical ones we have with China. It should also be noted that this is a mutual agreement that creates facilitation for the citizens of both countries. Visa policy is also an area that is intertwined between the obligations we have through the integration process and diplomatic relations, which are part of the country’s sovereignty, and the way each country develops them with other countries,” stresses the expert.
Regarding this issue, Nirvana Deliu, expert on integration issues, says that economic interests could have been the main reason for this decision.
“There is not much information yet on which this decision of the Albanian government is based, within the framework of the agreement with China on the lifting of visas for the citizens of both countries. Economic interest can be seen as the main driver, where China is actually present not only in Albania, but in the entire Western Balkans region with various investments and projects, leading to an increase in its geopolitical influence in this region.
Another element is tourism, which, due to the high number of Chinese population, can open the way for new opportunities to have this population as potential tourists in our country. It remains to be seen how this will translate into numbers in the following months, especially in the summer months,” argues Deliu.
However, apart from the positive impact this may have on the economy, experts recognize the inconsistency of this decision with the EU visa policy, with which Albania has already started accession negotiations.
“This decision is not in line with the visa policy of the European Union and the policy that our country is committed to aligning by the time of membership. However, other countries also have policies that differ from those of the European Union, but the commitment is that we must have a visa regime compatible with that of the European Union by the time of membership,” explains expert Gladis Gjipali.
Meanwhile, researcher Deliu stresses that one element that will be evaluated and monitored in the EU during Albania’s integration process is the visa policy, which is part of Chapter 24 of the EU acquis (Justice, Security, Freedom).
“The EU has a clear visa and liberalization policy towards third countries. On this issue, there are two EU lists – the 61 countries with which the EU has liberalized visas (so that the citizens of these countries have the right to enter the EU/Schengen area without a visa for a period of up to 90 years days) and the remaining countries are on the next list, where a visa is required to enter the EU. China is also on this list. On the other hand, the EU requires candidate countries to harmonize these two lists as well. It is not the first time that Albania liberalizes visas with a country while the EU has not done so.
This is worrying for the EU, and in the last annual report on the suspension mechanism for visa liberalization, the EU asks Albania not to deviate from the EU list of countries that require a visa to enter the EU,” explains Deliu.
According to the expert, this should be considered as a priority and attention should be paid to those countries that could bring a threat in terms of irregular migration or security.
“There have been cases where third country citizens, who can move without a visa in Albania but not in the EU, have taken advantage of this fact to enter the EU irregularly, causing security problems for the whole Union,” Deliu stresses.
But what are the risks of the decision for the reciprocal revocation of visas Albania-China? The Executive Director of the European Movement in Albania, Gladis Gjipali, says: “The risk arising from the divergence of the list of citizens of the countries to which they enter Albania without a visa from the list of the EU is related to the assessment made country during the negotiations, especially in the field of visas, which is chapter 24 and is one of the chapters that will be opened first and closed last in the whole procedure.
Albania and several other countries are also monitored in the evaluation report of the visa liberalization process, where continuous compliance with European legislation is also required in this aspect. Albania can receive a negative mark, we can say, but it must be said that it is not the only place.”
Faktoje also contacted the members of the European Integration Commission, Ms. Mimi Kodheli and Mr. Tomor Alizoti, but we did not receive any response. We also contacted the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Ditmir Bushati and the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms. Erisa Xixho, but we did not receive any answer from them either about the mutual lifting of visas between the two countries and the geopolitical implications of this decision making.
What the agreement on free movement anticipate?
On January 17, 2023, Albania and China signed the agreement on mutual visa waiver for the citizens of both countries.
According to the Albanian Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, this agreement aims to facilitate the flow of movement between citizens of both countries, for people who are holders of ordinary passports and holders of passports of officials of the Chinese side.
“The agreement was proposed by the Chinese side and will have a positive impact on facilitating movement and intensifying contacts between citizens of the two countries and serve as a further incentive to strengthen bilateral relations in all areas of common interest. “, reads, among other things, the ministry’s statement. With the entry into force of the agreement, Albanians can stay in China visa-free for up to 180 days.
China, Albania’s trading partner
Last June, Faktoje reported that the year 2022 marked a 67% increase in Albanian exports to China. Official data from INSTAT show that China is “taking” chrome and copper ores and concentrates from our country. The increase in export figures was announced in April by the Chinese ambassador to Albania, Zhou Ding, who described it as a sign of friendship between the two countries.
While INSTAT reported in December 2022 that Albanian goods exports to China reached the value of ALL 8.2 billion in the 11th month of this year, from ALL 7.2 billion exported in the 11th month of 2021, China ranked the fifth trading partner .
Fear of Chinese influence in the Balkans
In a Faktoje analysis published on December 27, 2022, based on an issue of the academic journal Per Concordiam, which focuses on security and defense issues in Europe, China could use trade agreements with the Western Balkans to allow Chinese companies to bypass trade restrictions and export products directly to the EU market of 800 million people, thanks to the free trade agreements that the Western Balkan countries enjoy with the EU.
In fact, infrastructure investment has always been China’s target in the region, given the urgency of investment in the sector as well as the lack of cash. A BIRN survey shows that China has invested about €32 billion in the region between 2009 and 2021, most of it in large infrastructure projects. It has also sought to expand its influence through initiatives such as One Belt One Road (also known as the New Silk Road) or the 16+1 Initiative, a broader cooperation system between China and countries in Eastern and Central Europe. In recent years, Beijing has moved into the Western Balkans as part of its massive “One Belt One Road” investment program, offering an attractive alternative for countries that seem fed up with the EU’s long wait./meta.mk/