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Kosovo visa liberalization: Long road with many obstacles

Crossing points; Photo: UNOPS/Elise Laker

The Czech Presidency of the European Union brought the issue of visa liberalization for Kosovo back to the agenda, with high hopes that the reignited interest and the EU’s self-reflection moment on its merit-based approach will be enough to overcome the suspicions of certain Member States who have been opposing the visa liberalization for years. 

According to the latest information from Brussels, Kosovo’s decade-long pursuit for visa free travel in the Schengen zone might reach a successful outcome on 1 January 2024, should Member States come to an agreement on the Czech proposal in the Council. 

The second meeting of the Working Party was held on 9 and 10 November, while the Member States had until 16 November to object to the proposal. According to Schengen Visa News, Spain and at least one more MS rejected the proposal, while a couple of other Member States requested further clarification. The reason behind Spain’s objection to the proposed date and postponement for 2024 could be that the country wished for its EU presidency to be over before the implementation of visa liberalization for Kosovo, still not recognized as a country by Spain.

Even though the issue of visa liberalization doesn’t require a consensus in the Council, but a qualified majority which could have been achieved in the previous years as well, the practice of the Council is to reach a consensus on decisions like this one, which is the reason why no countries presiding the EU before Czechia decided to include visa liberalization for Kosovo on the agenda.

However, it’s still unclear which countries objected and on what grounds, that is, whether the nature of objections is technical or political. It is yet to be seen if postponing the implementation to January 2024 will be the only outcome of the compromise, or if unconvinced Member States will require additional guarantees for their support.

Eva Hrnčířová, COREPER II Spokesperson, said for European Western Balkans that the Czech Presidency received some reactions on its latest proposal and that it’s currently working on clarification of remaining issues. 

“Unfortunately, I cannot speak about concrete Member States and their concerns as this could influence our efforts to reach an agreement about visa liberalization for Kosovo as soon as possible. We are very close to a compromise in the Council. The date we work with is currently 1 January 2024,” as Hrnčířová told EWB. 

According to RTK, Czech Presidency decided to omit the voting on visa liberalization from agenda of the ambassadors’ meeting held on 23 November due to tensions on the ground, and to reschedule the vote for the next COREPER meeting to be held on 30 November. This is the first time visa liberalization for Kosovo has been linked to the outcome of the Belgrade-Priština dialogue.

Kosovo, a potential candidate country for the EU, fulfilled all benchmarks for visa liberalization set by the European Commission back in 2018, but it remains the only country on the road to the EU whose citizens do not enjoy visa free travel to the Schengen area for the purpose of leisure, work or education. 

“On visa liberalisation, the Commission stands by its assessment of July 2018 that Kosovo has fulfilled all benchmarks. The proposal is still pending in the Council, and we support the renewal of discussions by a technical update of the assessment,” EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Várhelyi said while presenting the 2022 Enlargement Package. 

As we are slowly approaching the end of Czechia’s EU presidency, who regarded Kosovo visa liberalization as one of its priorities, the talks with the Member States on the Czech draft proposal have intensified and two Working Party meetings — in October and November — addressed this question. 

Recent developments of certain Member States asking for more clarification or additional technical requirements to be fulfilled before Kosovo is granted visa liberalization might reminiscence previous concerns voiced by countries such as France or the Netherlands about the sufficiency of reforms Kosovo has implemented in the areas of rule of law and fighting corruption and organized crime, as well as the possibility of increased migration.

However, the progress Kosovo made in these areas was recognized by the European Commission and the proactive approach of engaging bilaterally with reluctant Member States brought results, as all the signs show that France, Germany and the Netherlands have shifted their positions towards the issue. 

Linking Kosovo visa liberalization with ETIAS as a compromise with Member States

During the October meeting of the Working Party, France proposed the commencement of visa free travel for the citizens of Kosovo to be linked to the operationalization of the European Travel Information System (ETIAS), planned for 1 November 2023, it was reported by Radio Free Europe. The report also states that Belgium, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands supported the French proposal. ETIAS will enable the Schengen countries’ authorities to keep track of people entering the EU who don’t need a visa.

“Non-EU nationals who do not need a visa to travel to the Schengen area will have to apply for a travel authorisation through the ETIAS system prior to their trip. The information gathered via ETIAS will allow, in full respect of fundamental rights and data protection principles, for advance verification of potential security, irregular migration of high epidemic risks,” it is explained on the EC website. 

Messages from Brussels demonstrate that the Czech Presidency is putting a lot of effort into resolving the issue and reaching a compromise with the Member States, making objections of some EU Member States not seem detrimental to the possibility of a positive decision being reached in the Council by the end of the year.

In the meantime, the citizens of Kosovo hope to see a tangible outcome of the process which required comprehensive reforms and even an agreement solving a border dispute with Montenegro. Being able to travel to the EU without enduring lengthy and expensive visa procedures will be of great importance for all Kosovo citizens, regardless of their ethnicity or background.

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