As Schengen countries sign off on visa-free access for Colombians and Peruvians, Daniel Steel speaks to the Spanish Consul General about what the decision might mean
What is Schengen?
There are 26 Schengen countries, who have removed their internal borders, allowing passport free travel between them. It is worth noting that not all countries in the European Union (EU) are part of the Schengen.
Negotiations within the EU have been successfully concluded with the abolishment of the Schengen visa for Colombian and Peruvian citizens. The Schengen zone is a collection of 26 European countries that have scrapped passport and border controls between participating member states, adopting a common visa policy. The Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, tweeted the visa-free travel news; “End of negotiations on the suspension of Schengen visas for Colombians and Peruvians in the EU. They deserve it. Spain pushed and won.”
By means of a communiqué, the Colombian foreign ministry thanked the efforts of Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy who championed the initiative. Meanwhile, at the recent summit in Brussels, President Santos stated that the agreement with the EU was important for “the dignity of Colombians”.
Colombians and Peruvians can now expect to be able to travel to countries in the Schengen zone without a visa for up to 90 days by October. Now that the agreement has been signed by President Santos and President Ollanta Humala of Peru it will now need to be ratified by both the Colombian and Peruvian congresses. The agreement will then be translated into each of the Schengen zone member states languages and then ratified by their respective parliaments.
I was given the opportunity to discuss the impending changes with the Rafael Dezcallar de Mazarredo, the Consul General of Spain in Colombia. When asked why the change was taking place now and not before, the consul provided a perspective I had not previously considered. One of the major reasons behind Spain backing the visa requirements was the EU-Colombia Free Trade Agreement which came into effect in August 2013. As Consul Dezcallar highlighted, it created a clear and unfair imbalance between Spanish and Colombian businesspeople. Spanish businesspeople have been freely able to visit and sell their products in Colombia, while their Colombian counterparts have not.
I believed that one of the apparent reasons for granting visa-free travel to Colombians was to capitalise on the strong economic growth experienced by Colombia in recent years. A total of 121,019 Colombians solicited Schengen visas in 2013, a 42.7% increase since 2010. As of 2013 95.2% of Colombians requesting a visa are considered travellers of “good faith” and as such pose no threat to the EU.
However, according to Dezcallar this was not one of the primary concerns. He pointed out that out of the 60 million tourists that Spain receives each year, only approximately 200,000 of them are Colombian. The main objective was to send a “political message” recognising change in Colombia.
Another important point to note is that, according to Consul Dezcallar, this is the first time that Spain has proposed changing Latin American visa regulations since the enactment of the Schengen Zone in 1995. This is not a process that happens often. “I think it is a very clear message of confidence in Colombia, of recognition of the changes that have taken place in Colombia and it is obviously a very positive message for Colombian society and the Colombian government”, the consul said.
A less pressing factor in favour of the argument to remove visa requirements was to facilitate EU tourism for Colombians who live outside the larger cities. For these Colombians, it is far more difficult to access the consular services, as bureaucratic procedures involved can dissuade them from travelling to the EU.
Currently, the Spanish consulate here issues the third largest amount of visas of any Spanish consulate in the world. Dezcallar stated the consulate will be restructured in light of the changes. He indicated the increasing importance of supporting the 30,000 strong Spanish population in Colombia growing by 10% per year.
An important fact to note is that this will not apply to the UK and the Republic of Ireland which are not part of the Schengen zone. They will continue to demand that Colombians request a visa before travel. This poses an important question: how will it affect relations between Colombia and the UK?
The British government seems to have taken an increased interest in Latin America with more ministerial visits in recent years. This was topped off with the 2014 Royal visit. To use the words of former Foreign Minister William Hague in 2012, the message that the British government has been trying to push is: “The days of Britain’s retreat from Latin America are over”.
This message seems to ring hollow as British Ambassador Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby recently told El Colombiano: “We have no specific plans to change our visa system”. Has the message of confidence that Consul Dezcallar spoke of not quite crossed the English Channel? It can only be hoped that the UK will be prompted by recent changes to also reconsider its current position on visas for Colombians.
According to Semana, once the new regulations come into effect, Colombians will be able to travel to 61 countries without a visa. This is very good news and to paraphrase consul Dezcallar, it really does show Europe’s change of perception and recognition of the amazing transformation that the country has undergone in recent years.
By Daniel Steel