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Abolishing visa regimes is not only about traveling, but also about basic human rights

For the past seven years, I studied and worked in seven countries across three continents. This would have never been possible without institutional and financial support provided by the EU governmental institutions and the freedom to travel without restrictions. During my Erasmus+ exchange semester at the Free University of Berlin in 2014, I met two people: Dušica and Sahit, both Erasmus+ students with whom I built long-lasting friendships. Dušica, a Belgrade-native, taught me how to write a perfect CV, and Sahit, who comes from Prishtina, helped me learn how to cook, which made my mum delighted.

Seven years later, meeting my Erasmus+ friend Dušica is easy and only one bus ride away from Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, meeting Sahit is a nightmare – not because we are not friends anymore, but because every time I want go to Prishtina, as a Bosnian citizen, I also need to go through a kafkaesque process of obtaining a visa for Kosovo. Erasmus+ has brought us together, but the Bosnia-Kosovo visa regime has been separating us for years now.

To put it into perspective, I had easier time getting a visa to enter USA or UK than trying to make it to Kosovo. My Kosovo friends have even harder time travelling to Bosnia and Herzegovina, as my country does not recognise Kosovo travel documents. I find this deeply disturbing not only because we cannot visit each other, but because the visa regime has been jeopardising our  freedom of movement, one of the most fundamental human rights.

Considering that young people throughout the region increasingly crave a strong hand and authoritarian leadership, the visa-free travelling becomes much more than just a convenient way to meet other people within the region. However, during the past years, young people from the Western Balkans have been usually meeting with their peers from the region thousands of miles away, somewhere “on a neutral ground”.

For example, university students from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo have little chance to meet within the region. For a University of Sarajevo student, it is easier to spend an exchange semester in the EU, Russia or China than at the University of Prishtina. This is not because Bosnian students do not want to meet their peers from Kosovo, but because the lack of structural funds that support university student exchange programs and the visa regime inhibit academic mobility.

EU credibility at stake

At the same time, European Union does not make it any easier for Kosovars to travel to the Schengen Area either, despite the Kosovo governments fulfilled all the requirements for visa liberalisation. During the GLOBSEC Forum held last month in Bratislava, I asked Miroslav Lajčak why the Western Balkan leaders should trust the EU promises, taking into account the EU failed to deliver visa liberalisation to Kosovo. Lajčak, who currently serves as the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues, said “If you don’t trust the EU, go somewhere else”, adding that “the Kosovo leaders should go to those countries blocking the freedom to travel and ask how to comply.”

Lajčak’s answer was not just undiplomatic and arrogant, but also deeply disappointing, as it is more than clear that the Western Balkan countries do not have anywhere “else” to go but towards the EU. Additionally, it should be evident to every EU diplomat by now that the EU enlargement will benefit not only the Western Balkans, but the EU as a whole. Above all, the EU failing to deliver on its promise to abolish the visa regime is not only letting down the people of Kosovo, but also seriously damaging the credibility of the EU in the whole region.

Therefore, in order to fulfil its commitments and preserve its credibility in the region, the EU need to take a long-overdue step of allowing visa-free travel for Kosovo citizens. At the same time, in order to foster regional cooperation, improve bilateral relations, and reconnect family ties, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo need to abolish the existing visa regime as a matter of priority.

There is a good chance that some of these long-standing issues get solved today at the Berlin Process’ Western Balkan Summit in Berlin. It is expected that the Western Balkan leaders discuss, among other topics, travelling around the region using only ID cards. The newly-proposed agreement would enable the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo to travel throughout the region without needing a visa.

Besides the Regional Cooperation Council, several EU member states, including Germany, have taken part in facilitating this dialogue, which leaves us with some solid optimism about six countries reaching the final agreement. Numerous NGOs, academics, civil society and political activists, as well as business representatives from the six Western Balkan countries as well as EU member states have supported a request initiated by The Balkan Forum, a Prishtina-based think-thank demanding from the EU member states and Western Balkans leaders to enable the freedom of movement for all citizens of the Western Balkans.

Visa-free travel would not only make it easier for me to visit my Erasmus+ friend Sahit in Prishtina, but it would serve as a tool to boost economy, promote student mobility, and uphold human rights standards in the Western Balkans. Above all, abolishing visa regimes would profoundly unite the young people in the region, which should be a goal that stretches beyond our generation. Without united young people of the Western Balkans, there is no united Western Balkans.

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