As the last country in the Western Balkans to be subjected to visa liberalization, Kosovo became the first country subject of the lessons learned of this region-wide process. This entailed the adoption of a more nuanced set of benchmarks and strengthened monitoring by the European Commission, and recently also some politicization efforts of the matter by given member states.
Since June 2019, visa liberalisation process remains stuck at the EU Council’s conclusions, which suggest that Commission’s recommendation may not be sufficient, and “corruption and organised crime need to be resolutely addressed” in Kosovo.
While visa liberalisation “has always been a politically contested decision”, the decoupling between these two EU institutions’ makes it harder for Kosovo to see the process concluded in a considerable lapse of time. In front of the multiple challenges that the EU is currently facing, the consensus among the member states gains an important weight, especially vis-a-vis Kosovo, considering its disputed statehood by five countries.
During his visit in Pristina at the end of January, Josep Borrell declared that “I cannot tell you when it will happen, but what I can say is that Kosovo met all conditions for the liberalisation”.
German position towards visa liberalisation
The German government has been rather hesitant in taking an official position towards Kosovo’s visa liberalisation, despite the positive recommendation of the Commission.
Similarly to other member states, the German public opinion has been to a certain degree affected by the rise of scepticism towards EU, although this domestic scepticism is mostly oriented towards the Union and not enlargement policy per se.
The German ‘lack of appetite’ is primarily related to the stalling dialogue between Prishtina and Belgrade, considering also the fact that over the past two years the issue of land swap between Kosovo and Serbia has been in the centre of the public debate. The German government has adopted a firm position on the land swap and although the Prishtina-Belgrade dialogue has never been formally part of the visa liberalisation process, from the very start Germany took the lead in adding the ‘normalisation of relations with Kosovo’ to the range of conditions required for the advancement of Serbia’s accession negotiations as much as progress of Kosovo’s relations with the EU, including visa liberalization. The hesitation was compound by concerns related to the state of security and organized crime as well as the sharp rise of applications for work visas to Germany.
Germany’s 2020 EU Presidency
From July, Germany will be the next member state holding the rotational EU Presidency and the expectations remain high on its efforts to push forward the visa liberalisation process. In this regard, the prospective lift of 100% tax on Serbian and Bosnian products as of 1 April 2020 shows a sign of goodwill from the side of Kosovo’s government towards a the creation of a fertile ground for the resumption of the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade.
Exactly a year ago, the German government issued its confirmation that Kosovo’s visa liberalisation should be concluded without any further precondition. The few concerns raised by the German Minister of Internal Affairs on the technical modalities and harmonising standards related to the country’s visa liberalisation have been tackled in the meantime through the establishment of a bilateral working group, although there has been no public follow up on the matter. There has been only an assurance that the matter under discussion had a technical nature and not a political one.
In principle, Germany has always insisted on the application of a rigorous conditionality in each of the Western Balkan countries, as an adequate instrument for encouraging sustainable reforms. This approach reflects also a common denominator across the different political parties sitting in the Bundestag. The government authorities tend to consult the Bundestag on the issue of enlargement, but maintain more leeway when it comes to visa liberalisation with third countries.
However, despite the government’s support to lift the visa to Kosovo citizens, at the current state it is difficult to make a prediction on Council’s positive attitude within 2020. At the end of 2019, the German Minister Roth confirmed that there is no “chance […] in the Council to reach unanimous agreement” on the matter and in front of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit negotiations and the approval of the new multi-annual financial framework, it is difficult even for the German Chancellor to find the necessary political space and internal political will towards achieving a wide consensus in the Council regarding the visa issue.
Given the present dynamics and political fragmentation at the EU level, the decision would need to be considered at the highest political level. In front of the present difficulties, it seems rather unlikely for Germany to invest in bargaining with other EU member states on Kosovo’s visa issue.
This article has been written as part of wider research and advocacy efforts supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society in the context of the project ‘Building knowledge about Kosovo’.