VIENNA — Visa liberalization for Kosovo, which is still on halt even though the government in Priština fulfilled the benchmarks back in 2018, should be “treated as a matter of urgency” by the Council of European Union, while at the same time Kosovo should use the opportunity of bilateral relations to curb the scepticism of certain Member States who challenge the coherence of the EU regarding this issue, as recommended by the Policy Brief “Kosovo: ending isolation” published within the WB2EU network.
Authors of the Policy Brief, Elise Bernard and Fjollë Ibrahimi, emphasized the importance of freedom of movement for the citizens of Kosovo, not only in sense of regional cooperation and progress towards the EU, but also for economic development and intercultural exchange.
As explained in the Policy Brief, Kosovo began the process of visa liberalization in 2012 and in 2018 the fifth and the last European Commission report on the issue up to date outlined that Kosovo fulfilled all required benchmarks. The EC’s proposal for visa liberalization for Kosovo was followed by the vote in the European Parliament, which expressed its support.
However, the proposal has since been pending at the Council of EU, due to the fact several Member States have been reluctant to give the green light. The reasons behind their decision were uncertainty about the state of organized crime and corruption in Kosovo, as well as the possible influx of migrants and asylum-seekers coming to Schengen countries.
In the recent years, states such as the Netherlands, Germany and France have shown signs of attitude change. The Policy Brief cites Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who in June 2022 mentioned “taking the next step” when it comes to visa liberalization for Kosovo, “because they have done a lot in terms of rule of law and independent judiciary.” Authors highlight that this is the first official statement that gave reason to suspect there has been a change of the Netherlands’ position.
Similar statements by German and French officials stated in the Policy Brief indicated that the granting visa liberalization might come sooner rather than later.
Even though the 2021 EC progress report stated that corruption “remains an issue of serious concern,” authors draw attention to other indicators which demonstrate the progress Kosovo made in the previous years regarding these fundamental issues.
“According to the international watchdog Transparency International, which published its latest Corruption Perception Index in January 2021, Kosovo made progress by climbing 17 places, achieving the highest annual improvement. Moreover, Kosovo achieved its highest ranking ever in the latest Freedom House report, where it achieved a rank of 37.5 out of 100 in democracy compared to 36.5 in 2021,” it is outlined in the Policy Brief.
The authors further challenged the migration concerns voiced by certain opponents of visa liberalization for Kosovo. The data mentioned in the paper shows that number of asylum-seekers from Kosovo significantly dropped in the previous years, placing Kosovo on the second-to-last place in the Western Balkans region when it comes to number of asylum-seekers in the EU.
“About 1,600 Kosovar citizens applied for asylum in the EU in 2021, constituting so 95% decline from 2014 when 34,000 Kosovar citizens applied for asylum,” as stated in the Policy Brief.
The visa regime seriously hinders regional cooperation, as well as economic progress and intercultural exchange for the citizens of Kosovo. Policy Brief outlines several directions in which visa liberalization would be of great importance for advancing in these areas. Lengthy and expensive visa procedures discourage citizens of Kosovo to go to EU countries for educational, business or cultural purposes.
This was an even bigger issue in the case of visa regime existing between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo (until signing of the mobility agreement at the Western Balkans Summit in Berlin on 3 November 2022 which enabled travel between BiH and Kosovo using only ID cards), bearing in mind that there is a significant Bosniak minority living in Kosovo.
“Considering the whole situation from the social dimension, a key priority should be the free movement in order to improve the chances of EU accession and secure the citizens a more prosperous future. So, all citizens and in particular the youth should have the opportunity to travel and meet other young Europeans of different nationalities. By exchanging opinions, points of view, ideas, and culture, we learn about each other and ourselves. Europe is also an experience,” as the authors explained.
Policy Brief highlights the importance visa liberalization would have for the youth in Kosovo, bearing in mind that their access to exchange programs such as Erasmus+ is often challenged by the visa procedure many students cannot afford. Furthermore, isolation drives societies apart and disables the process of intercultural exchange which is of crucial importance in the process of EU integration, as “in this way bridges are built between people, between communities — and this is how Europe is made after all.”
Claims that visa liberalization will improve the economic situation in Kosovo are supported by experience of other Western Balkans countries, such as Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia. All these countries saw their trade with the EU rise after being granted visa liberalization.
As a recommendation for overcoming the contest by certain Member States, the Policy Brief proposes utilization of bilateral relations and cultural cooperation. An example for this is the relationship between Kosovo and France, which was strengthened by admission of Kosovo into International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF) in October 2018, as well as signing of the Declaration of Expression of interest “aimed at establishing stable and strategic relations between France and Kosovo.”
Authors also praised the work of the French Embassy in Priština in fostering intercultural exchange, but warned that in order to make the most out of the programs like these, the citizens of Kosovo should be able to physically travel to EU countries without constraints.
Policy Brief also draws attention to the importance of current geopolitical circumstances in which cohesion in the EU is needed, including on the issue of visa liberalization, especially since right now “the need of people to have as much interaction as possible with each other is increased.”
Moreover, having in mind that this year brought three new applications for EU membership, by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the Policy Brief call upon the EU “to step up the game and finally remove visas for Kosovars.”
The Policy Brief is published in the framework of the WB2EU project. The project aims at the establishment of a network of renowned think-tanks, do-tanks, universities, higher education institutes and policy centres from the Western Balkans, neighbouring countries and EU member states that will be most decisive for the enlargement process and Europeanisation of the region in the upcoming years. The WB2EU project is co-funded by the European Commission under its Erasmus+ Jean Monnet programme.