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SPEECHES, INTERVIEWS, ARTICLES

24.01.2013

Ambassador's Notebook: Visa Regimes: What Era Are We In?

A new era in the history of passports and visas began in the 14th century. Merchants and travelers went to foreign lands and, to make it easier to cross borders, they prepared special travel documents. These documents not only gave the holder’s name and surname, but also their hair and eye colour and even nose shape. These were the first foreign passports. Moreover, since the 15th century, countries like England issued passports not only for their nationals heading abroad but also for inbound foreigners, enabling them to travel freely about the country.

Regular citizens remained unaware of passports till 1460. By that time, beggars, tramps and thieves had virtually inundated Europe. The authorities faced the pressing task of differentiating upstanding citizens from everybody else. Thus, they introduced passports.

The first internal passports appeared in Germany. In the event, the monarchs suffered most from this development: they had to sign thousands of identity documents by hand. It was quite a while before this task was delegated to a staff of secretaries.

The French King Louis XIV also played an important role in the history of passports and visas. Most of his subjects who travelled abroad opted to leave France by sea, so predominantly needed documents to let them through a port ¬– “passe porte” in French – and thus the travel document got its name.

By the 18th century, almost all European countries had their own passport and visa systems. Visas were stamped in passports at border checkpoints as a traveler entered a foreign country.

Strange as it may seem, the idea of strict domestic passport control originated in France in the late 18th century, during the Revolution. For the first time in history, a ban on appearing in public without one’s passport was introduced by Robespierre and his allies. Anyone unable to produce their passport could end up on the guillotine.

The rapid spread of the railroad in the mid-19th century led to the collapse of the passport system. From that time on, passport constraints in Western Europe started to ease gradually. France, followed by Germany, Spain and Italy, first abolished visas and then passports. From the late 19th century to the beginning of World War I, it was possible to travel around Europe without a passport, and borders were easy to cross. By 1914, passports had fallen out of use almost everywhere in Europe, seemingly forever. But then World War I broke out.

In 1915, the passport as we know it appeared. Its design, which has remained unchanged ever since, was invented by the British: a small booklet in a cardboard cover containing information on its holder along with their photograph (for security, they decided to keep the detailed description of the passport holder: facial features, eyes, eyebrows, nose, etc). By the end of the war, every country in Europe had adopted the English-style passport.

Russia has followed in Europe’s footsteps ever since the era of Peter the Great, including its revolutionary experience.

This passport and visa heritage became entrenched during the Cold War. The question now is how it can be overcome. In order to achieve this we must first understand the era in which we find ourselves, and assess whether or not we will be able to make progress in a political environment that has changed dramatically since those days.

Consequently, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act provision on freedom of movement throughout Greater Europe was both far ahead of its time and particularly timely. If anyone believes that now, 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, its time has still not come, then it would be interesting to hear their views on when the best time to scrap visas in Europe would be. British historian Niall Ferguson is right in saying that today’s globalization has yet to reach the depths of its pre-WWI counterpart. It is all about overcoming the heritage of the 20th century, with its two World Wars and, of course, the Cold War.

I am sure that this imperative forms part of a more fundamental general trend to the restoration of these positive aspects of European life that were lost with the formation of centralized states and the spread of nationalism. Just a glance at the European Union is enough to see that national borders are now losing significance, amid growing regionalization.

Another factor is that the old paradigm of economic development has run out of steam, so it is now possible for labor to reclaim its individual nature. It was lost as a result of the Industrial Revolution, which became one of the most important factors in the dehumanization of European society. In other words, everything is interconnected in an integrated societal organism.

I am convinced that, without constant progress in securing freedom of movement in Europe, advances in any other direction will not be possible. This in turn will have an adverse effect on Europe’s competitiveness in this radically new global environment.




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