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Visa Liberalisation Conditionality for Kosovo: Navigating between Technical Criteria, Regional Priorities and Case Specificity

Photo: AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu via Tanjug

The EU approach towards liberalising the visa regime for short term stays in EU and Schengen countries with Kosovo follows the same pattern as for all the other Western Balkan countries beforehand. Identical policy instruments were used in the case of Kosovo as with the other countries. Most of the technical criteria and reforms that shaped the visa liberalization dialogue with Kosovo and the relevant roadmap launched back in 2012 are rooted in the Justice and Home affairs acquis, or what has been known as the negotiation chapters 23 and 24, which deal with rule of law issues.

Yet, besides established criteria, additional political conditionality is introduced in the process within the broader frame of EU approach to solving Balkan’s sticky problems –bilateral conflicts and poor state of rule of law. In 2016, the European Commission proposed to grant visa free travel to Kosovo citizens upon the fulfillment of two remaining benchmarks – ratification of a border demarcation agreement with Montenegro and a sustained track record in the fight of corruption. The 2018 Credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans re-emphasized that ‘the rule of law must be strengthened significantly’ and ‘definitive and binding solutions’ must be found to bilateral disputes.

The Commission’s assessment and ultimate proposal to offer visa liberalization vacillated between both established technical criteria and additional Balkan-specific strategic priorities. Here one should add the specific status of Kosovo, which triplicates the complexity and specific detail of the process.

Readmission agreements

Kosovo, similar to the other Balkan countries was required to sign a readmission agreement with the EU prior to starting the visa dialogue. However, because of the peculiar situation with five EU member states not recognising it as a country, Kosovo is unable to sign a readmission agreement with the EU. As a result, Kosovo needed to negotiate and sign such agreement on a bilateral basis with individual or group countries from the EU. Therefore, even prior to starting the dialogue with the EU, Kosovo needed to bypass an ‘extraordinary’ issue deriving from its status. All other Western Balkan countries had to sign only one agreement with the European Community.

Until the end of the assessment period, Kosovo managed to sign 22 readmission agreements with 24 countries including 18 member states (one agreement for the Benelux countries), two associated countries, three Western Balkan neighbours with the exception of Serbia, and Turkey. Kosovo has also adopted a Law on readmission covering the remaining EU countries with which Kosovo doesn’t have a readmission agreement.

Besides these requirements, Kosovo received few country-specific criteria which were not requested for the other Western Balkan precedents. Specifically, Kosovo was asked to reinforce its efforts in the area of reintegration as well as in border security, management of civil registries and issuance of documents in order to fight illegal migration and to reintegrate Kosovo citizens readmitted in the country, a pre-condition for initiating visa-free dialogue.

Roadmap similarities with other Western Balkans countries

Similarly, to roadmaps provided to other Western Balkan countries, the one for Kosovo published in 2012 was tailor-made and reflected the specificity of the country. Yet, the level of resemblance between the roadmaps is high. Although the number of benchmarks in the case of Kosovo is almost double than in the cases of the other countries from the region, content-wise, the reforms required are largely same or similar. If we compare, for example, the segment of the Roadmap devoted to border management of both Macedonia and Kosovo we can see the resemblance. In the case of Macedonia, the Commission asked one single benchmark i.e. ‘to implement the legislation governing the movement of persons at the external borders, as well as the legislation on the organisation of the border authorities’. The requirements under this specific benchmark included: 1) implementing legal and regulatory aspects on movement of persons at external borders; 2) implementing the legislation on the organisation/functions of border authorities, and 3) implementing Integrated Border Management (IBM) strategy/actions plan regarding checks, surveillance, manuals. Similar requirements in the case of Kosovo, were outlined in five individual benchmarks.

The situation is exactly the same when we compare the Kosovo’s roadmap with the one of Serbia. The Serbian authorities needed to ‘adopt and implement legislation governing the movement of persons at the external borders, as well as the law on the organisation of the border authorities and their functions in accordance with the Serbian National Integrated Border Management Strategy. The Roadmaps with the other countries follow the same structure.

More Detail and Precision

What is different in the case of Kosovo is the level of detail and precision in constructing the Roadmap. Whereas in previous cases with other Balkan countries, the Commission needed to go through a round of explanatory meetings to clarify the requirements under each specific benchmark; in the case of Kosovo this was not the case or it was substantially decreased. The specificity in the approach towards Kosovo is the ‘full involvement of Council and the member states in each step of the dialogue’ as well as ‘in in developing and, if necessary, amending this Roadmap’.

Although the Roadmap remained the same, the original benchmarks were interpreted differently and changed over time. A case in point is the one related to the border/boundary management (Block 2) which requires ‘to complete the endeavor, in a coordinated manner with the other party, the delineation of the border/boundary with Montenegro’. This benchmark has been modified overtime to the extent that in the end Pristina authorities needed not only to delineate the border, but also to ratify the Agreement in the Parliament. The specific interpretation, allowed political parties to delay and exploit the process for political gain, and determined country’s delay and loss of a 2016/2017 momentum with Georgia and Ukraine.

Delays and Postponements

The complexity of this three level conditionality –standard technical, region-specific and case-specific – has necessarily delayed and postponed the process. While other countries from the region needed approximately two-three years to fulfill the criteria, Kosovo took around six years. The number of benchmarks given to Kosovo exceeds by double the number of requirement provided to the other Western Balkan countries. The level of precision and detail of the documents itself was unique in amount and scope.

Yet, EU member states had agreed on moving forward with the issue of visa free travel thereby treating Kosovo as any other Western Balkan country despite of the issue of status. Although the status issue remains a huge burden, at least, in regards to visa liberalisation, the burden proved not insurmountable.

The results of the government reforms and actions in the four priority blocks were positively assessed by the European Commission in July 2018. The European Parliament too has since voted twice in favour of visa-free travel for Kosovo citizens. The issue is now pending for the ultimate approval of the Council, which has still to discuss and vote the proposal. Under these circumstances, it would help that Kosovo authorities maintain a positive track record of implementation in key priority areas, particularly progress of rule of law.

Zoran Nechev, the head of the Centre for EU integration at the Institute for Democracy ‘Societas Civilis’ and member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), and Arolda Elbasani, visiting scholar at the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, New York University, NY

This op-ed has been prepared as part of the wider research and advocacy efforts supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society in the context of the project ‘Building knowledge about Kosovo (v.2.0)’, whose findings will be published soon.

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