European Western Balkans

What Stands in the Way of the Council’s Approval of Visa Liberalisation for Kosovo?

EP building in Brussels; Photo: European Parliament

Last month, Kosovo celebrated 11 years since its Declaration of Independence. Most EU member states but five have recognised its statehood. The five non-recognizers tend to add specific political hurdles and complex negotiation ‘specificities’ to an already spiraling enlargement conditionality. As such, the Council of the EU, where most political concerns of member states are leveled out and final decisions decreed, has taken a ‘wait and see’ or ‘go slow’ approach towards Kosovo’s EU accession process. The process of visa liberalisation with Kosovo, a key reward the EU can offer to Kosovo, shows how these case-specific ambiguities, complex negotiations but also the expanded conditionality inform and at times slow down the EU decision-making process.

As of now, Kosovo is the only country in the Western Balkans which doesn’t have an agreement with the EU regarding visa-free travel in the Schengen area. This is despite the fact that the European Commission launched the visa liberalisation dialogue with Kosovo back in 2012 and soon after presented Kosovo authorities a Roadmap of necessary reforms that would entitle the country to visa liberalisation. The roadmap entails legislative amendments, adoption of new laws, formation of new institutions, recruitment of new staff, as well as training in numerous areas such as immigration, asylum, border control, the fight against crime, terrorism and corruption, and the protection of identity.

Since then, the EU Commission has annually assessed and updated the range of targeted reforms on the basis of identified benchmarks. It has also spiced up the traditional roadmap requirements with additional ones which have now emerged as key priorities in the Western Balkans accession process, including resolution of border disputes and promotion of rule of law. This strategy has been effective in encouraging domestic reforms elsewhere in the Balkans, while offering tangible benefits to citizens, which the distant EU membership perspective cannot.

In 2016, four years after the initiation of the process,  the Commission suggested that Kosovo be granted visa-free travel for its citizens based on the fulfillment of two remaining conditions –an agreement on the border demarcation with Montenegro and sustained track record in the fight against corruption and organised crime. Kosovo ultimately fulfilled the two conditions in July 2018, but the EU member representatives in the Council were not as fast as the Commission in certifying the results. While the European Parliament voted the Commission’s proposal in September 2018,  the Council has not even included the file on the agenda to this date. Resistance in the Council of the EU convolutes both the politicised nature of negotiations on every issue that regards Kosovo; but also member countries’ raising concerns about the state of rule of law and corruption, as well as more specific concerns about high rates of asylum seekers from the Western Balkans, including Kosovo.

Decisions in the Council of the EU usually reflect the lowest common denominator of EU member states’ positions. Negotiations happen on three levels: in working groups at expert level, at ambassadors’ level and finally among EU countries’ ministers. Consensus is always favoured as a decision-making method. Even if a decision is taken at the level of the working group, it is the national ministers who ultimately approve or not experts’ decisions. As a result, quite often member states’ position on enlargement in general and Kosovo in particular departs from a common EU standpoint because of specific political considerations. At this instance of negotiations, the EU Commission agenda can be challenged by member states’ more particularistic agendas and concerns. Interviews with three European diplomats present at the Council meetings in Brussels confirm that in the current political climate, a more ‘politicised’ conditionality that reflects member states’ concerns tends to prevail.

Most EU member countries’ concerns voiced in the Council or elsewhere are usually framed within the new priorities of the EU enlargement strategy towards the Balkans – demonstrated results in solution of bilateral conflicts and the fight against corruption. Given that Kosovo struggled to fulfill both remaining requirements for the visa liberalisation – the demarcation of the border with Montenegro and a demonstrated track-record in fighting corruption and organised crime –the Commission delayed its assessment of country’s readiness to be exempted from the visa requirement until mid-2018. By then, Kosovo lost much of the general momentum to accelerate the deal. When the Commission issued a positive evaluation in 2018, key member countries appeared less convinced and kept raising concerns mostly about the shaky achievements of Kosovo in the battle against corruption.

Finally, even those member countries considered traditional supporters of the Kosovo’s EU perspective, such as Austria which held the Council Presidency in the second half of 2018, failed to push the process forward. Particularly in the context of ongoing negotiations on the reform of the EU asylum policy in the Council, member states that receive the largest number of asylum requests – such as Germany, France and Netherlands – worried about a possible influx of asylum-seekers or illegal migrants. In 2013, there were 5,310 first-time asylum seekers from Kosovo. Although the numbers went down when compared to previous years, the perception remains that the region, particularly Kosovo, remains a key source of asylum seekers in Europe.

The approaching of the forthcoming EU elections to be held in May this year has only increased the likelihood of EU member countries voicing migration and asylum-related concerns and consequently politicising the EU decision on visa liberalisation for Kosovo.

This study by Doris Manu and Arolda Elbasani was supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society as part of the project “Building knowledge about Kosovo (2.0)” whose findings will be published soon.

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