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EUROPEAN UNION

Visas to qualifications: How foreign residents in Europe can get help with paperwork problems

Foreign nationals living across Europe regularly have to overcome hurdles with paperwork and red tape whether it's with residency or work permits or having professional qualifications recognised. But there is help at hand that many may not know about.

Visas to qualifications: How foreign residents in Europe can get help with paperwork problems
There is help for those individuals and companies who have paperwork problems in the EU. Photo by Romain Dancre on Unsplash

What is SOLVIT and what kind of problems can it help you solve?

Although the general principle is ‘freedom of movement’, people going to live to another country of the European Union, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein can have all sort of problems setting up.

These can include the transfer of a car bought in another EU country, the swapping of a driving license, the application for a non-EU spouse visa, and the procedure to set up a company. The good news is that help is available.

SOLVIT is a name few people are likely to have heard, despite having been around for 20 years.

It is a free online service to help individuals and businesses resolve problems they experience with administrations in the countries of the European single market, where people, goods, services and capital can move freely.

What sort of problems?

Created by the European Commission in 2002, the network of SOLVIT centres can help with anything related to European single market’s rights.

The single market countries have common rules to avoid technical, legal and bureaucratic barriers to free movement. But sometimes national, regional or local authorities do not apply these rules as intended causing problems to the people who depend on them.

It can be daunting to try and solve these issues across borders, even more so when another language is involved. In these cases, people can resort to SOLVIT centres to seek help.

How does it work?

Complaints can be submitted on the SOLVIT web page, which also provides the contact details of SOLVIT centres in all countries.

The central office (home centre) will check whether the problem falls within the SOLVIT’s remit, prepare the case and send it to the SOLVIT team (the lead centre) in the country where the problem has occurred, who will try to find a solution with the responsible authority.

The objective is to complete the procedure in 10 weeks from when the case is accepted by the lead centre. But according to a report by the European Commission less than 50 per cent of cases now meets that target, partly because of stretched resources in the face of growing demand.

Gerard de Graaf, the head of the EU Office in San Francisco, previously head of the team that created SOLVIT, wrote in the 20th anniversary report: “In 2001, it was clear that citizens and small businesses in particular needed hands-on help to overcome incorrect application of EU rules by national and local authorities.

“We had contact points in each member state but few problems ever got resolved and it was disheartening. We had the idea to set up instead problem-solving centres, connected via an internet-based, multilingual network… I still vividly remember the first cases going through the new system in 2002, and, even more so, the positive feedback we received: “I can finally reunite with my husband and children…”

In 20 years, the network has dealt with close to 29,000 cases. Only in 2021, 5,231 complaints were filed to the SOLVIT service (2,455 accepted) compared with 155 in the first year of operation.

How are countries doing?

The caseload varies between countries. In 2020 France handled the largest number of complaints, with 157 submitted by individuals and companies and 435 received from other Solvit centres. Germany followed with 131 cases lodged by individuals and companies and 214 received from other Solvit centres, Italy with 146 and 270 respectively, and Spain with 133 and 196.

Austria also had a relatively large number of cases, with 32 submitted complaints and 102 received. Sweden had 39 submitted and received 60, Denmark 51 and 22, and Norway 11 and 30.

Some of the common problems, the European Commission reports, were the recognition of professional qualifications, visa and residence rights, driving licences, pension rights and access to healthcare.

In 2020 difficulties included delays in exchanging information related to social security, as well as problems accessing healthcare and claiming unemployment benefits linked to COVID-19. Some of the problems in France were related to the social security reimbursement of medicine sold by parallel traders.

In terms of recognition of professional qualifications, there were difficulties for nurses who acquired part of their training in a non-EU country, for social paedagogical educators in Italy and for speech therapists in France.

Complaints about Sweden were related to the inclusion in the population register and the issuance of a personal identification number, unjustified delays to admit EU workers to the national social security system and to issue residence cards to their non-EU family members. This was reported also in Austria.

Several countries, including Norway, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Germany, applied unjustified conditions and refused short-term visas for non-EU family members of EU citizens.

If you need to submit a complaint via Solvit in the country where you are then click here for the details of how and where to submit it.

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TRAVEL NEWS

REVEALED: Countries fear non-EU travellers face delays under new EES border checks

A number of countries in Europe's Schengen area admit they fear delays and insufficient time to test the process ahead of new, more rigorous EU border checks that will be introduced next year, a new document reveals.

REVEALED: Countries fear non-EU travellers face delays under new EES border checks

Schengen countries are tightening up security at the external borders with the introduction of a new digital system (EES) to record the entry and exit of non-EU citizens in May 2023.

The EES will enable the automatic scanning of passports replacing manual stamping by border guards. It will register the person’s name, type of the travel document, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) and the date and place of entry and exit. The data will be kept in a centralised database on a rolling three-year basis that is re-set at each entry. 

What the EES is intended to do is increase border security, including the enforcement of the 90-day short-stay limit for tourists and visitors.

EU citizens and third-country nationals who reside in a country of the Schengen area will not be subject to such checks as long as they can prove residency in an EU country however they will still be caught up in any delays at passport control if the new system as many fear, causes longer processing times.

READ ALSO: Foreigners living in EU not covered by new EES border checks

But given its scale, the entry into operation of the system has been raising concerns on many fronts, including the readiness of the physical and digital infrastructure, and the time required for border checks, which could subsequently cause massive queues at borders.

A document on the state of preparations was distributed last week by the secretariat of the EU Council (the EU institution representing member states) and published by Statewatch, a non-profit organisation that monitors civil liberties.

The paper contains the responses from 21 countries to a questionnaire about potential impacts on passenger flows, the infrastructure put in place and the possibility of a gradual introduction of the new system over a number of months.

This is what certain the countries have responded. Responses from Denmark, Spain and Sweden do not appear in the report but the answers from other countries will be relevant for readers in those countries.

READ ALSO: What the EU’s new EES border check system means for travel

‘Double processing time’

Austria and Germany are the most vocal in warning that passport processing times will increase when the EES will become operational.

“The additional tasks resulting from the EES regulation will lead to a sharp increase in process times”, which are expected to “double compared to the current situation,” Austrian authorities say. “This will also affect the waiting times at border crossing points (in Austria, the six international airports),” the document continues.

“Furthermore, border control will become more complicated since in addition to the distinction between visa-exempt and visa-required persons, we will also have to differentiate between EES-required and EES-exempt TCN [third country nationals], as well as between registered and unregistered TCN in EES,” Austrian officials note.

Based on an analysis of passenger traffic carried out with the aviation industry, German authorities estimate that checking times will “increase significantly”.

France expects to be ready for the introduction of the EES “in terms of passenger routes, training and national systems,” but admits that “fluidity remains a concern” and “discussions are continuing… to make progress on this point”.

Italy is also “adapting the border operational processes… in order to contain the increased process time and ensure both safety and security”.

“Despite many arguments for the introduction of automated border control systems based on the need for efficiency, the document makes clear that the EES will substantially increase border crossing times,” Statewatch argues.

‘Stable service unlikely by May 2023’

The border infrastructure is also being adapted for collecting and recording the data, with several countries planning for automated checks. So what will change in practice?

France will set up self-service kiosks in airports, where third-country nationals can pre-register their biometric data and personal information before being directed to the booth for verification with the border guard. The same approach will be adopted for visitors arriving by bus, while tablet devices such as iPads will be used for the registration of car passengers at land and sea borders.

Germany also plans to install self-service kiosks at the airports to “pre-capture” biometric data before border checks. But given the little time for testing the full process, German authorities say “a stable working EES system seems to be unlikely in May 2023.”

Austria intends to install self-service kiosks at the airports of Vienna and Salzburg “in the course of 2023”. Later these will be linked to existing e-gates enabling a “fully automated border crossing”. Austrian authorities also explain that airport operators are seeking to provide more space for kiosks and queues, but works will not be completed before the system is operational.

Italy is increasing the “equipment of automated gates in all the main  airport” and plans to install, at least in the first EES phase, about 600 self-service kiosks at the airports of Rome Fiumicino, Milan Malpensa, Venice and in those with “significant volumes of extra-Schengen traffic,” such as Bergamo, Naples, Bologna and Turin.

Switzerland, which is not an EU member but is part of the Schengen area, is also installing self-service kiosks to facilitate the collection of data. Norway, instead, will have “automated camera solutions operated by the border guards”, but will consider self-service options only after the EES is in operation.

Gradual introduction?

One of the possibilities still in consideration is the gradual introduction of the new system. The European Commission has proposed a ‘progressive approach’ that would allow the creation of “incomplete” passenger files for 9 months following the EES entry into operation, and continuing passport stamping for 3 months.

According to the responses, Italy is the only country favourable to this option. For Austria and France this “could result in more confusion for border guards and travellers”. French officials also argue that a lack of biometric data will “present a risk for the security of the Schengen area”.

France suggested to mitigate with “flexibility” the EES impacts in the first months of its entry into service. In particular, France calls for the possibility to not create EES files for third-country nationals who entered the Schengen area before the system becomes operational, leaving this task to when they return later.

This would “significantly ease the pressure” on border guards “during the first three months after entry into service,” French authorities said.

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