I remember myself exactly on the same day of last year, watching news and not being convinced with Kosovo’s Prime Minister’s statements that the country will apply for its EU membership within 2018. It was strange, and for anyone who somehow deals with EU issues, a bit exaggerated to hear such kind of promise having in mind the circumstances which Kosovo was facing that time. Nevertheless, promises and deadlines are nothing new for Kosovo citizens when it comes to EU-related issues. Visa liberalization process, for instance, has been circulating for years: is it happening this year, or maybe the other one, or probably a year after the other? The never-ending dilemma of Kosovo citizens over these issues kept growing in 2018, and yet, nothing happened in practice. It was clear that Kosovo won’t be able to apply for EU membership, however, an optimism for visa liberalization was always there for the country of 1.8 million inhabitants. Yet, two conditions left and three years later, despite positive evaluation from the Commission on fulfilment of visa-liberalization criteria and the support from the European Parliament, Kosovo was left out of the agenda of the Council, where the final decision had to be taken. The news blew not only in the face of politicians who kept promising, often for political gains, but mostly on random Kosovars who were hoping to be able to move freely like their surrounding neighbors. The final nail on the coffin for the visa issue followed, during commissioner’s Hahn visit in Pristina. Liberalization may not come even in 2019, he announced. The failed story of Kosovo and the EU integration within 2018 just got its epilogue. I am not even discussing here for the issues related to the dialogue with Serbia, because I’ll get back to that topic very soon, in detail.
So, what could possibly happen during 2019 in order to keep Kosovo on track of EU integration?
As a starting point, Romanian presidency is not a promising news. Romania is one of the five non-recognizers of Kosovo independence from EU countries, and this might have a negative impact in Kosovo’s steps further in EU integration. Except setting the agenda for the next six months, unanimity is needed for any kind of decisions for further developments, including a potential bid for EU membership. Having in mind that except Romania there are four other countries who still don’t recognize Kosovo, this scenario is quite unlikely to happen. In addition, Kosovo itself is not ready yet for this step, since there are many other issues to be handled at home.
EU’s interest in 2019 on enlargement issue will be minimal, not to say inexistent. The last stage of Brexit and upcoming European elections are the core issues which interests everyone at the EU. Therefore, the last months of the current Commission and the EU-formation in general will be quite busy on these two priorities, and they won’t let much room to deal with western Balkan countries, especially not Kosovo. The most pressing issue in the EU level for the moment is the dialogue process with Serbia, which is entering the final stage. The dialogue is especially important for the High Representative, who still might be hoping that a final agreement between the parties could be reach within Mogherini’s mandate. The enlargement story could get even more complicated after the elections, if far-right movements are successful in the elections. This scenario could endanger the whole process with the Western Balkans, not only Kosovo.
Visa liberalization also is quite unlikely to happen within 2019. This issue won’t have place in the upcoming Romanian presidency, not only because of the non-recognizers, but also because of what left Kosovo out of Austrian agenda as well: fear of Germany, France, Netherlands and other Member States that Kosovars might misuse the liberalization. Despite the fact that number of asylum-seekers from Kosovo to EU countries have massively decreased from 2015 (88%), and many readmission agreements reached between Kosovo and individual Member States, the latest are yet not convinced that a potential liberalization would mean a massive flux of Kosovo citizens towards EU countries. Having in mind the upcoming elections as well, this is a bad timing for involving visa-liberalization process for Kosovo citizens in the agenda.
A bad 2018, and probably a worse 2019. What went wrong?
EU’s lack of concrete vision is causing troubles. Except ensuring Kosovo that the country has a European perspective, this perspective couldn’t really be enlighten neither by the EU nor Member States themselves. Lack of a coherent approach towards Kosovo has created a big puzzle, which is causing headaches in both Brussels and Pristina. Publishing enlargement strategies by stating the obvious, that Kosovo has European future, didn’t help at all. Moreover, continuously issuing country reports and concluding that “Kosovo has made some limited progress” and in the other hand not being concrete on what could be done better also didn’t have any impact.
The missing coherent approach towards Kosovo from the EU, that I was referring earlier, can be put in practice with the implementation of the Stabilization and Association Agreement. The SAA between the EU and Kosovo provides endless opportunities to Kosovo students, academics, artists and businesses. However, being unable to free travel within the 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 is being a massive burden on proper implementation of SAA.
Moreover, regarding visa liberalization, EU has failed to prioritize processes over political agendas. 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. Despite fulfilling all criteria, no visa liberalization came in 2018. Countries with much bigger problems than Kosovo, such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, all benefit from visa-free regime for Schengen zone.
In the other hand, Kosovo institutions have failed to comply with the somehow-unsettled EU agenda, and especially EU criteria. Primitive national political battles have costed a lot to Kosovo citizens, because while political subjects have been focusing on gaining power by using European agenda, Kosovo has been left behind on fight against corruption and many other core aspects of state functioning. Even ratification of demarcation agreement with Montenegro, should it has been done in 2015 or 2016, the political environment has been quite different that time and easier to proceed with the visa-liberalization for Kosovo citizens. But, the demarcation agreement became a massive political issue between political parties in Kosovo, and it finally got ratified in 2018, which was too late to allow the EU to complete the liberalization process in 2018.
As a result, both sides, Kosovo institutions and the EU, has failed to cooperate and coordinate on joint processes. The dialogue with Serbia fits somehow in the story, but it will be treated separately and more detailed. The current situation is not allowing neither of the parties to perform well. The failed attend to tango of two dancers with different approaches is painful for Kosovo citizens. The ‘young Europeans’ still need to go through the tiring and the totally bureaucratic process of applying for a Schengen visa in order to travel somewhere in the EU. Despite being one of the most pro-EU societies, Kosovo is unlikely to make a step ahead on its path towards EU, since the EU-candidate status seems quite far. All these figures complete a very complicated process, driven by two main actors: the EU, which keeps playing with double-standards, and the Government of Kosovo, which’s constantly failing to do its homework. The outcome of the whole Kosovo – EU relation: damaged EU reputation in Kosovo, Kosovo politicians travelling whenever they want to and Kosovo citizens not being able to go further than neighboring counties.