The visa affair is the name given by the German press to the controversy that arose in early 2005 over a change in the procedure for issuing visas to foreign nationals seeking to enter Germany from non-EU, Eastern European states. The new visa policy put in place in 2000, it was claimed, dispensed with safeguards against abuses such as illegal immigration and human trafficking in favour of speeding up the issuing process for tourist visas. The affair prompted the resignation of the responsible Minister of State Ludger Volmer of the Green party from his roles in the Bundestag foreign affairs committee and as foreign affairs spokesperson of his party. The claims severely damaged the reputation of his party colleague, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. The allegation was that changes had been made to the previous tougher visa rules, without correct political procedure. Some[who?] commentators have suggested that the increase in the number of Ukrainians visiting Germany may have promoted a more positive view of Western Europe, assisting the Orange Revolution.
In 1999 the German embassy in Kiev, Ukraine alone issued more than 150,000 visas for Germany. Long queues formed in front of the embassy. Applicants reported that Ukrainian security personnel demanded DM 100 to 500 (€50 - 250) from applicants to get ahead in the queue.
At the beginning of 2000, the Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, Ludger Volmer, issued a decree (known as "Volmer's Decree"), which extended the powers of the individual embassies in deciding about visa applications. The decree aimed at making travel to Germany easier. When in doubt, the application was to be decided in favour of the applicant.
At the same time, visa applications directly from travel agencies were introduced. This regulation was opposed by the Bundesgrenzschutz (Federal Border Guard) as well as by the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), because they feared that it would lead to easier migration into Germany for criminals. They cited a criminal court decision against the manager of a travel agency who organized illegal migration into Germany. The "tourists", in this case; went underground, became prostitutes or left Germany for other countries of the European Union.
On March 9, 2000, the Minister of the Interior, Otto Schily (SPD) wrote a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joschka Fischer, saying that he saw the "Volmer's Decree" as a violation of the Aliens Act as well as of the Schengen Treaty. As of 2005, it is not clear if Schily intervened further, or if not, why?
On May 2, 2001 embassies worldwide were advised to accept the Carnet de Touriste travel insurance introduced by Helmut Kohl's CDU in 1995. These insurance documents covered medical costs incurred abroad as well as any costs resulting from deportation. They were accepted in place of a written guarantee by a German citizen to prove that the visa applicant could finance his stay and his return home.
The German Automobile Club (ADAC) sold between 120,000 and 150,000 of these insurance documents, the Allianz insurance company sold more than 35,000, and the ITREC GmbH company more than 31,000. The Foreign Office also advised the embassies to accept similar travel insurance documents from the Reiseschutz AG, owned by private entrepreneur Kübler. The press claims this played an important role in the smuggling of people into Germany. The Ministry of the Interior was informed about this by the Federal Crime Agency (Bundeskriminalamt).
In the trial of Anaton Berg, the Cologne criminal court claimed that the "Volmer's Decree", the acceptance of travel insurance documents instead of guarantors or proof of credit-worthiness and the applications for visas at travel agencies had led to mass human trafficking. In the verdict, this was described as "a cold putsch against the law".
In July, 2001, the Foreign Office prevented applications for visas at travel agencies from October 1, 2001. Instead of going to a travel agency, once more every applicant had to go to the visa department in an embassy. However, it was assumed that a travel insurance document sufficed as proof of the applicant's credit-worthiness.
From January 29, 2002 the Foreign Office decreed that it was possible to buy and sell travel insurance documents directly in foreign countries. It is said in the press that this increased the problems in Kiev and that traders sold travel insurance documents for as much as $1,000.
On February 8, 2002 the German ambassador in Kiev, Dietmar Stüdemann, reported that the embassy was flooded with applicants proving their credit-worthiness with travel insurance documents.
In March 2003, "Volmer's Decree" later called the "Fischer degree"-since it was his responsibility, was cancelled. Once more, applicants' credit-worthiness had to be examined. From April 2003, travel insurance documents were no longer accepted.
In February 2004, a German regional court found the defendant, Ukrainian-born Anaton Berg, guilty of people trafficking and smuggling. The court found that laxness in issuing German visas in Ukraine, where about 300,000 tourist visas were issued to visit Germany between 2000 and 2002, made it easier for Berg to commit his offenses.
On January 20, 2005 the first meeting of the Commission of Inquiry was held in the German Bundestag. This commission—a kind of judicial hearing—was set up with the votes of the opposition parties CDU and CSU. The CDU/CSU parliamentary group was represented by Eckart von Klaeden.
On February 12, 2005 Ludger Volmer retired as the Speaker for Foreign Affairs of the Green Party's parliamentary group in the Bundestag, after the media criticized his work as a consultant for the company Synthesis GmbH, which worked for the Bundesdruckerei, the agency privatized in 1994, producing identity cards, banknotes and other secure documents.
For the first time in over six years, in February 2005, opinion polls did not show Joschka Fischer in first place in the popularity vote. Instead, the leading position in the popularity vote went to the Christian Democratic Ministerpräsident of Lower Saxony, Christian Wulff, with Fischer coming in second.
On February 15, Fischer agreed to testify before the special parliamentary commission. In a statement, he accepted what he called "political responsibility" for mistakes that may have been made by German consulates in Ukraine.
In March 2005, during his first trip to Berlin since being sworn in, President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine in a speech before the German Bundestag asked for a visa-free regime for business people, students, artists and young people seeking contact with EU countries.
On March 22, 2005 the media reported that the Federal Chancellery had been informed about a dispute between Otto Schily and Joschka Fischer about visa politics as early as March 2000. It was said that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder himself was not informed.
On March 26, 2005 Eckart von Klaeden called for Joschka Fischer to tell the truth before the elections in North Rhine-Westphalia. The CDU/CSU tried to force a statement by Fischer.
On March 31, 2005 the media reported that Fischer would speak before the Inquiry Commission in mid-April, earlier than previously expected. The testimony of SPD minister of the interior Otto Schily was scheduled for June.
In April 2005 the media reported that there were difficulties in 2004. Fischer claimed the difficulties were resolved in mid-2004. Eckart von Klaeden said on the main German television channel ZDF that the Commission of Inquiry wanted to investigate the differing statement of Fischer in March 2005. On April 21, the Commission of Inquiry heard Ludger Volmer and the State Secretary at the Foreign Office at the time, Gunter Pleuger. This Commission of Inquiry hearing (duration: more than 12 hours) was the first such hearing broadcast by television (and was watched by more than 400,000 people).
At a second all-day televised hearing on 25 April 2005, Fischer admitted that mistakes had been made during his time in office when thousands of visas to Germany were granted to criminals and prostitutes from the Ukraine from 2000 to 2002. But Fischer also dismissed opposition arguments that the security and well-being of Germany were significantly harmed by the influx of immigrants, and he contended that once the problem was discovered in 2002 the policy was immediately corrected. Fischer's decision to admit some responsibility came after weeks of stonewalling by his party, which had even tried to delay appearing before the special parliamentary commission. The hearing lasted 14 hours and was viewed by 700,000 viewers on Phoenix only, a 10.5% quota. After the hearing, members of the CDU/CSU continued to ask for Fischers retirement, whereas members of SPD and The Greens said that Fischer performed well and that the CDU/CSU members in the commission were not able to show evidence for their accusations.
On 29 April, the Foreign Office passed the relevant documents to the European Commission, following months of pressure.
In May 2005, the German ambassador to Ukraine said the visa policies of Fischer were lax and eased the application of visas. He also said that the Volmer Decree discouraged the embassy's employees.
On June 2, 2005, the Commission of Inquiry was adjourned after a short session of only 30 minutes. The commission called an end to the hearing of evidence with the majority of its SPD/The Greens members. CDU and FDP on the other hand are likely to appeal to the Constitutional Court should this matter be dropped permanently. Some ministers, who were due to appear before the commission (e.g. Otto Schily or others Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Federal Chancellory), were not to be questioned in the end. Instead, the work of the commission was prematurely ended due to the widely anticipated call for an early election.
On June 15, 2005, in a provisional ruling, the Constitutional Court considered the end of the hearings of evidence, as mentioned above on June 2, as unconstitutional and ordered the Commission of Inquiry to continue with its timetable as planned as long as the Federal Diet isn't dissolved due to the expected call for a snap election later this summer. This would mean the cancelled hearings of ministers like Schily (Minister of the Interior) and Steinmeier (Minister of State of the Federal Chancellory) will most likely take place after all.
On August 4, the European Commission decided that while the lax system at the heart of the German visa scandal violated European Union norms (including the Schengen Agreement and the Common Consular Instructions), Germany had since remedied the problem with a reformed policy that complies with EU rules. In response, Member of the European Parliament Joachim Würmeling of Germany challenged the European Commission to investigate Germany’s new policies, claiming that these too were flawed.