Shortly after 13:00 today (Wednesday, May 4), Kosovo received the long-awaited positive recommendation on visa liberalisation from the European Commission. It is hoped that Kosovars with biometric passports will soon be able to travel visa-free to Europe’s Schengen Zone.
Announcing the decision, Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos said: “I know how important visa-free travel is for the people of Kosovo and I am very satisfied with the progress achieved.”
Reacting to the European Commission’s recommendation, European Parliament rapporteur for Kosovo, Ulrike Lunacek, said: “The European Commission’s long awaited green light for visa liberalisation with Kosovo brings joy to Kosovo citizens and all of us who have been supporting visa free travel for this youngest European state for so many years. It is a very good new momentum for the EU integration process. This long overdue step will lead to the end of the unacceptable isolation of Kosovo citizens since the freedom to travel has been enjoyed by the citizens of all other countries in the region since the end of 2010.”
Despite overcoming this significant hurdle, visa free travel for Kosovars is not yet guaranteed. The recommendation by the European Commission must now be adopted by the European Parliament and Council before the proposal can be implemented, something which Avramopoulos said he hoped would happen “very soon.”
There are also conditions attached to the recommendation. A European Commission press release said requirements for visa liberalisation have been met, “on the understanding that by the day of adoption of this proposal by the European Parliament and Council, Kosovo will have ratified the border/boundary agreement with Montenegro and strengthened its track record in the fight against organised crime and corruption.”
A long road already traveled
Ever since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, the promise of visa-free travel in Europe’s borderless Schengen Zone has been one of the most oft-repeated promises to citizens by the country’s politicians. However it took until January 2012 for a formal dialogue between Kosovo and the European Union to be initiated. This was followed in June 2012 by the publishing of a roadmap setting out 95 requirements that needed to be fulfilled by Kosovo’s government and institutions in order for Kosovars to move freely within much of the European Union. The road map included issues such as the reintegration and readmission of Kosovars who had sought asylum elsewhere, document security, border/boundary and migration management, combatting organised crime and corruption, as well as ensuring fundamental rights related to the freedom of movement.
Since then, the Commission has adopted three assessment reports on how far Kosovo has met the requirements; the first was delivered in February 2013, the second in July 2014 and the final report in December 2015. Last December’s report highlighted that Kosovo had fulfilled most of the criteria, however it found that eight criteria remained outstanding. Back then, Ukraine and Georgia received a positive recommendation from the European Commission but Kosovo was told there was still more work to do; it was announced that it was expected Kosovo would fulfil the remaining criteria very soon, and that an EU Commissioner would visit early in the new year to make that assessment.
The decision was met with an outpouring of frustration on social media by citizens, while politicians from across the spectrum announced their “shock” and deep set discontent, many suggesting that this was a “political decision” by the EU rather than a matter of meeting technical standards. Prime Minister Isa Mustafa claimed that all of the technical criteria had in fact been met, although this was disputed by some analysts within Kosovo.
Agron Demi, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies, told K2.0 that the technical requirements for Kosovo have been excessive when compared to those expected of other countries in the process. “Kosovo has fulfilled the criteria that other neighboring countries have; in all of the other countries, the required criteria were about the security of documents, border control, internal security and institutional sustainability,” he said. “In the case of Kosovo, these criteria have gone into too much technical detail, for instance, whether the Ombudsperson has an adequate office or not!”
For Agron Bajrami, editor-in-chief of Koha Ditore, the fact that a positive recommendation on visa liberalisation for Kosovars has come now is more down to geopolitical reasons than whether the country has actually fulfilled the stated requirements. “Visa liberalisation for Kosovo is not happening because the EU decided to grant us something,” Bajrami told K.20. “It is happening because the EU has been obliged to sign a deal with Turkey on the issue of refugees so that the refugees will remain in Turkey, and the EU has pledged to lift visa requirements for Turkey … It would be an absurdity to lift visa requirements for a state of more than 70 million inhabitants that hasn’t fulfilled the criteria, while leaving the door closed for Kosovo.”
The path ahead
With the European Commission now recommending visa liberalisation for Kosovo, the likely impacts of visa-free travel will soon be thrown into sharp focus. Demi believes that in terms of the economy, there will be little impact, which will come as a disappointment to citizens. “The challenge after visa liberalisation will be to manage people’s expectations, taking into account that now, and throughout the last eight years, electoral campaign messages have promised visa liberalisation and that this would solve the economic problems.”
Bajrami believes that a positive outcome of visa liberalisation, besides granting citizens the ability to travel to the Schengen Zone with no visa, may be to trigger progress in removing restrictions on movement closer to home. “Free movement within the EU is not the only problem that we face,” he said. “We need free movement of people and goods within the region, where we have a bigger economic interests to cooperate, for example with Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
The effects on people’s day to day lives that visa liberalisation might have has been long discussed within Kosovo. Bajrami thinks visa liberalisation might have an important psychological effect. “After all the mess through all the years of remaining isolated, visa liberalisation will make people breathe easily and feel more equal,” he said.
Demi agrees that Kosovars will feel a sense of equality as a result of visa liberalisation but he also highlights the hardships Kosovars will still face in relation to travel. “When taking into account the economic situation, where 72 percent of Kosovars are unable to take a week off, either out of the country or inside Kosovo, it will be a great challenge for many to use the opportunity to travel freely within the Schengen Zone,” he said.
Despite reservations for the whole complicated process, it seems that the expensive headache of applying for visas may soon be over as another landmark achievement for Kosovo’s citizens is reached.