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Less hassle with new EU visa rules

1 April 2014.

Published in Global Times (China) & China Daily.

With new visa rules, it will be made easier to travel to and within Europe. Photo: Jo Christian Oterhals/Flickr (cc)
OP-ED

Many travellers to Europe are discouraged because of cumbersome visa rules and long waiting times. The problems faced by so many when applying for a visa is a wake-up call, and it is time for Europe to address this issue. Today, we are proposing to change our EU visa legislation, writes EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani.

Since 2011, over a million Chinese have applied every year for a visa to go to Europe, for vacation or business trips. The number of such visas issued in China more than doubled between 2009 and 2013. Europe is the top tourist destination in the world with a wealth of natural, cultural and artistic heritage. But despite the vital importance of the tourism sector, the red tape and practical difficulties facing visa applicants today are substantial. Many Chinese travellers are discouraged because of cumbersome visa rules and long waiting times. The problems faced by so many when applying for a visa is a wake-up call, and it is time for Europe to address this issue. Today, we are proposing to change our EU visa legislation to make it easier to apply for a visa to the EU borderless area (Schengen). The European Commission – the executive branch of the EU with the power to propose new legislation – is presenting proposals for an overhaul of our visa laws, to eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles.

As many applicants have experienced, the main obstacles in the existing system include long waiting times to get an appointment with consular offices, as well as long waiting times for the visa to get issued, and the requirement to present a complex series of supporting documents. In a recent survey financed by the European Commission, approximately 30 percent of Chinese respondents perceived the supporting documents requirement to be highly problematic. A third of the Chinese travellers surveyed also feel that the time necessary to receive an EU visa is a problem to a high degree.

With today's proposals for new EU laws, getting a decision on one's visa application should in principle take no longer than ten calendar days. Furthermore, we wish to simplify the rules that state which supporting documents are needed, to make the process similar no matter which embassy or consulate the application is launched in. Also, minors under the age of 18 should no longer have to pay a visa fee.

Another issue that acts as a deterrent for many potential visitors to Europe is insufficient consular coverage in certain regions, as people sometimes have to travel far to present their visa request. These requirements are even more frustrating for frequent and regular travellers, as they cannot obtain a visa for multiple entries. In the recent visa survey, China had the largest percentage of  respondents amongst the countries surveyed - around 70 percent - who feel that the requirement to meet in person at the consulate is a problematic aspect of the EU visa process.

The Commission therefore proposes that people who regularly travel to Europe should be granted a multi-entry visa valid for several years, if they have had a visa issued to them twice in the previous 12 months. In the coming years, according to our proposals, it will no longer be necessary to lodge an application in person if the applicant is already registered in the system. In addition, a new type of visa is proposed – the touring visa, with which the holder can stay in the Schengen area of Europe and travel across the continent for up to a year, with the possibility to extend it by another year. This will be an important new element to the visa code for certain groups of tourists that wish to stay longer in Europe, but not set up residence in one country. The touring visa will also be welcome for many who travel to Europe for business, especially in the cultural sector.

You have a growing desire to discover Europe, and we should heed that call. For Europe, this is also matter of growth and employment. In 2011, tourists spent approximately 400 billion euro in the EU. This figure will rise if Europe is able to continue to attract tourists from important economies such as China. Recent studies indicate that if the countries of the European area without internal borders would take advantage of the flexibility of our visa rules – sped up procedures, limited the number of documents required and provided frequent travellers with multiple entry visas with long validity – we could have up to 46 million additional international arrivals by 2015. This would bring a further 60 billion euro to Europe's economies, creating half a million jobs. In the wake of the most severe economic crisis since the Second World War, Europe must take full advantage of such possibilities.

Some European countries already compete to promote tourism from abroad. For example, Italy has increased its consular capacity in China, resulting in a 100% increase in the number of visas issued. Also, Poland implemented a “fast-track” procedure for visa applications during the UEFA European Football Championship in 2012. For Europe, events such as the Milan World Expo in 2015 and the UEFA European Football Championship in 2016 in France are opportunities for millions of new travellers to visit Europe, but only if they can obtain a visa without unnecessary hassle.

The proposed revision of the EU visa policy is a turning point in how Europe encourages mobility. Now, it is up to the European Parliament and the EU Member States to negotiate these proposals, and hopefully turn them into law as soon as possible.

There is no time to lose. International competition is becoming increasingly fierce as a growing number of countries rely on tourism as a factor for growth. Simpler visa procedures are vital to allow Chinese people to visit Europe. In short, we need you to come to us. And we must make it easier for you to do so.