Stabilization and Association Agreement: how did it happen and what does it mean for the newest country in Europe
On 27 October 2015, the Republic of Kosovo and the European Union signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), in Strasbourg. This agreement was then adopted by the Government of the Republic of Kosovo on 30 October 2015, and ratified by the Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo on 2 November 2015. Prior to its signature, the SAA was adopted by the European Commission on 30 April 2015, following the conclusion of negotiations and then by the Council of the EU, on 22 October 2015. By signing and having it ratified by its Assembly, the Republic of Kosovo fulfilled its political and formal obligations regarding this process, while then the SAA was ratified by the European Parliament, on 21 January 2016. This marks the conclusion of all formal procedures, and the SAA entered into force on 1 April 2016, as provided for under its Article 144.
The SAA, being the first contractual agreement between the two parties, represents a new phase of political relations between Kosovo and the EU. As an international agreement, it determines the official mechanisms and time limits for implementation of all reforms which will progressively align Kosovo with the EU in all policy fields, until the fulfilment of all EU standards. Furthermore, the SAA will set the framework of Kosovo‘s relations with EU member states and institutions for the implementation of the Stabilization and Association process (SAP) until full EU membership. With regard to its scope, in addition to political issues and legal obligation (including those that affect the internal legal order), the SAA covers all fields of governance.
The SAA enables Kosovo and the EU to work even more closely together and build a deeper relationship on all fronts – leading to Kosovo’s full integration into the EU. It focuses on respect for key democratic principles and the core elements which are at the heart of the EU single market. Thus having the SAA fully in force is the first real step in Kosovo’s process of European integration. While the main objective of the SAA is to prepare Republic of Kosovo for eventual EU membership, ongoing implementation of the Agreement brings about a number of direct benefits for the country. Having an SAA in place means, for example, that Kosovo is seen as a credible international partner of the EU and it’s Member States – which can increase the confidence of investors, domestic and international. At the highest level, a Stabilization and Association Council and a Stabilization and Association Parliamentary Committee are established. At the technical level a Stabilization and Association Committee and sectoral Sub-committees are established. These bodies support the more intensive dialogue that takes place between the EU and Kosovo.
Having an SAA in place means:
- The EU market is open for most of Kosovo products free of duties (except for wine, baby-beef, sugar and fish, which are subject to quotas) and without any obstacles, under the condition that these products are in line with the EU standards. This enables producers from Kosovo to offer their products to 500 million consumers throughout the EU.
- More stable, transparent and predictable market and investment rules should lead to increased foreign direct investment which in turn creates new employment.
- Increased opportunities for Kosovo citizens to study in any EU country under the same conditions in terms of recognition of qualifications and education fees: people can benefit from the EU’s most popular programs to study and teach in the EU (like ERASMUS). SAA also means increased investment in research and development, providing adequate support to academicians and innovators in the country.
- Better opportunities for doing business in Kosovo, more business-friendly environment due to transposition of EU standards and norms, removal of unnecessary administrative and other obstacles. Moreover, EU structural funds for SMEs are available to entrepreneurs.
- Kosovo can in principle benefit from EU funds in the area of agriculture (IPARD). Moreover, Kosovo would be gradually becoming able to benefit from instruments of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), ensuring certainty to farmers and their families through timely reactions to changes in the agricultural and food market.
- Kosovo can benefit from EU assistance to protect and preserve its water, soil and air, in compliance with the highest EU standards, and to secure a healthy environment for its citizens.
Seen from the strategic perspective, the SAA offers a clear perspective of future EU membership and puts Kosovo well on track in assuming its place in the European family of nations and preparing to integrate itself into the world’s largest economy. Overall, the EU will continue to support Kosovo’s progress in EU integration through the whole Stabilization and Association Process (SAP).
Young and isolated: the liberalization saga for less than 2 million inhabitants of a potential-candidate country
Eight years after declaration of independence, Kosovo remains the only country in Balkans and also a potential candidate to join the EU who still does not have visa liberalization agreement with the EU. The less than 2 million citizens of Kosovo, often called as the ‘young Europeans’, still need to go through the tiring and totally bureaucratic process of applying for a Schengen visa in order to travel somewhere in the EU. Even though the visa liberalization dialogue between Kosovo and EU has started since 2010, still no practical results have been achieved. On 14 December 2010, the Council reaffirmed that Kosovo would benefit from the perspective of eventual visa liberalization once all conditions are met; took note of Kosovo’s progress in the fields of readmission and reintegration; and took note of the Commission’s intention to launch a visa liberalization dialogue once all conditions are met and the Commission’s intention, before launching such a dialogue, to share its assessment with the Council of the fulfilment of such conditions. Finally, on 5 December 2011, the Council reaffirmed that Kosovo would benefit from the perspective of eventual visa liberalization once all conditions are met and without prejudice to Member States’ position on status.
Since receiving the Roadmap, Kosovo has already submitted three Reports to the EU, reporting on the achievements made on fulfilling the conditions set by the Roadmap, which mostly are related with the controlled migration, border controls, fight against corruption and organized crime and rule of law in general. It is worth mentioning that Kosovo received the Roadmap four years after the other countries in the Region, and with twice many criteria to be fulfilled than the other Balkan countries.
Finally, on May 2016, European Commission proposed lifting the visa regime for Kosovo citizen, but only after Kosovo fulfill two remaining criteria: ratification of demarcation agreement with Montenegro and fight against corruption and organized crime.
The demarcation agreement has become a massive political issue between political parties in Kosovo. Opposition parties are highly opposing it, by throwing teargas and organizing massive protests against this agreement, claiming that Kosovo is losing some 8000 ha of land to Montenegro. Assembly of Kosovo tried to ratify this agreement in the beginning of September, but the ratification failed. As the situation stands now, the ratification of this agreement might take a lot of time, which would keep the citizens of Kosovo isolated. The second condition, fight against corruption and organized crime, should be taken much more seriously by both Kosovo and EU. Despite continuous efforts, Kosovo institutions are failing to fulfill their obligations in this regard, and except damages in rule of law and justice system, this fact is also damaging the visa liberalization process.
However, let’s turn the page and see what the EU is doing in this regard.
As a general rule, decisions on visa free access to the Schengen Area may follow from bilateral negotiations. They are based on the progress made by the countries concerned in implementing major reforms in areas such as the strengthening of the rule of law, combating of organized crime, corruption and illegal migration and improving of administrative capacity in border control and security of documents.
The EU made a political commitment to liberalize the short-term visa regime for the Western Balkans, as part of its Thessaloniki agenda announced in 2003. On January 2008, the Council welcomed the Commission’s intention to launch a visa dialogue with all the countries of the region and expressed its readiness to further discuss this issue, with a view to defining detailed roadmaps setting clear benchmarks to be met by all the countries of the region in order to gradually advance towards visa liberalization. On December 2009, the Council underlined that Kosovo should also benefit from the perspective of eventual visa liberalization once all conditions are met and invited the Commission to move forward with a structured approach to bringing the people of Kosovo closer to the EU. As previously stated, Kosovo received its Roadmap in 2012, four year after other Balkan countries and with twice many criteria to fulfil. One might argue that Kosovo wasn’t even a country before 2008, and therefore this is a natural development of processes. However, it would be strange making such kind of comparison, since Kosovo is almost in the same level of development, human rights protection and rule of law as most of the other Balkan countries, namely Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Macedonia. Still, Kosovo was left the last one (and still is).
Further, strangely enough, EU continued its visa-free regime agenda with many other countries which have the same, and even bigger problems, than Kosovo. First, it was Moldova who got visa liberalization in 2014. Further, in 2015, visa regime was removed with United Arab Emirates in May, and now lately, even with Colombia and Peru.
The demarcation conditionality is also a non-sense, and unheard before Kosovo case, regarding visa liberalization. First of all, we’re not talking about EU membership, but freedom of movement at first place. Second, there are Member States of EU, such as Croatia, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Germany who still have open issues with their neighbors regarding border demarcation. Third, none of the other Western Balkan countries were imposed to the demarcation conditionality except Kosovo. Finally, there are cases from other continents, such as Eastern Timor, that despite non-ratification of border demarcation with Australia, the country got visa-free regime for Schengen zone.
Another important element when it comes to visa liberalization is the visa reciprocity. The EU aims at achieving full visa reciprocity with the non-EU countries whose nationals are exempt from the visa requirement. Thus, EU citizens would not need a visa either for travelling to these non-EU countries. For that purpose, a visa reciprocity mechanism has been set up. However, since the declaration of independence in 2008, Kosovo has never introduced a visa regime for the EU citizens, which means that visa reciprocity is not applicable in Kosovo case!
Having in mind all these (non)developments regarding visa issue, one may ask what are Kosovo citizens thinking about the whole process. It is a well-known fact that Kosovo citizens are among the most pro-European nation in the world, but this fact should not be taken for granted. Several scandals related with EULEX mission in Kosovo (the biggest external mission of EU – ever!), damaged the trust and reputation of the EU in the country. Many citizens of Kosovo are not happy with the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, and it is a common way of thinking of many people that the EU is actually making the Kosovo government to negotiate. The refusal of the EU to get rid of the visa regime for Kosovo citizens, which in total would fit in a single suburb of a middle-sized European city, is endangering even more the credibility of a structure who helped a lot and did a lot for Kosovo. Surely, Kosovo institutions have a massive part to play is this regard as well.
SAA with no freedom of movement: what next?
The ratification of SAA by both Kosovo and EU represents a major milestone on Kosovo’s European integration journey. However, being unable to freely travel within Schengen area, Kosovo citizens will be restricted to benefit from all the opportunities the SAA offers at the first place. In fact, the fact that Kosovo citizens are still isolated will be a massive burden on proper implementation of SAA. Imagine what a wasted opportunity for a businessman would be not being able to attend a business fair in Vienna in order to promote his company. Or, what would be the point of ratification of the SAA if a young academic, a farmer, an entrepreneur or simply a random citizen of Kosovo would like to go abroad and enhance its professional capacities?!
Lifting visa regime for Kosovo citizens is not a favor. Freedom of movement, despite being one of the fundamental rights, it also represent a mutual cooperation and partnership recognition between the EU and Republic of Kosovo. It is absurd for the EU and its Member States to keep inviting potential candidates to join the European family, to get engaged on mutual obligations, and in the end to fail to implement what they have initially agreed for.
In the other hand, authorities in Prishtina have to do their homework. Fight against corruption and organized crime is yet to be completed, despite daily statements made by domestic politicians that this is the key priority in Kosovo right now. Political parties also need a wide consensus on matters that have direct impact on the life of citizens, such as rule of law, economic growth, education and freedom of movement. This consensus should be reached first of all to solve the ratification of demarcation with Montenegro, and then to extend to other aspects, which would have impact on Kosovo’s path towards EU membership.
Kosovo is already left behind from the rest of the region, and any further delays would bring bigger price to pay, both for the EU and for the new Republic.