Perspectives | EU

Will Kosovo pass the final test?

By - 09.11.2018

Mapping the route to visa liberalization through the European Council.

The long waiting, exhausting and humiliating hours outside embassy doors, the stress and pain of collecting dozens of papers, and the money withdrawn from saving accounts to obtain the right to travel in the Schengen area will seemingly soon finally be over. Kosovo is the only country in Europe whose citizens still need a visa to travel within the Schengen area, but this may finally change if the EU Council votes in favor of the European Commission’s (EC) proposal that recommends ending the requirement for visas.

On September 13, the EU Parliament (EP) approved the opening of negotiations with the European Council on visa liberalization for Kosovo. Although in favor, the results of the vote showed sharp divisions among EU member states. The outcome of the vote in the EP has caused anxiety among Kosovars who feel that the Council may block, or vote against visa liberalization.  

Although the against votes from countries who still don’t recognize Kosovo’s independence were expected, what was not expected were the against votes from what were thought of as friendly countries to Kosovo, such as France and the Netherlands. Out of 628 members present, 420 voted in favor, 186 against and 22 abstained. As the table below shows, Kosovo has received the most against votes from the EP compared to other countries to which the EP voted to grant visa free travel.

Although it is interesting to search for deeper answers, there are obvious reasons why the proposal got so many votes against. First, there are the votes from non-recognizers who see any ‘pro’ vote as legitimizing Kosovo’s independence, and second are the parliamentarians from countries who fear that lifting visa restrictions will cause massive migration towards their countries. The third is the nationalistic and xenophobic wave that has taken Europe by storm, which most likely applies to all members of the European Parliament whose against votes were not related to Kosovo’s status.

Regardless, the voting outcome in the Parliament showed that there is a significant resistance from member states, who may want to block the decision for visa free travel for Kosovo. For the purpose of this article I will explain how the process will go after the positive vote from the EP and offer some possible scenarios that can happen in the European Council.

The next phase

With any proposal that comes from the European Commission, the EP and the European Council have a decisive vote in the legislative process, and both institutions may amend the proposal coming from the Commission. The proposal from the Commission for Kosovo is a legislative proposal to amend Council Regulation 539/2001, which will put Kosovo on the Schengen ‘white list.’

The European Council always votes with a qualified majority on proposals that come from the Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, which is the case in this instance, with the proposal originating from the European Commission. Voting with a qualified majority may benefit the proposal, as none of the member states hold a veto. This is important because a singular naysayer will not be able to block the proposal, including those states that do not recognize Kosovo.

A qualified majority is achieved when two conditions are met: first, that 55 percent of member states vote in favor, which in practice means 15 out of 26 member states (the U.K. and Ireland do not vote in the European Council on matters relating to Regulation 539/2001 as they have separate border controls and are not party to the Schengen agreement), and second, that the proposal is supported by member states representing at least 65 percent of the total EU population. This double majority is important if the member states with larger populations aren’t among the votes in favor. These bigger member states can play a crucial role, especially if forming a ‘blocking minority.’

A blocking minority can be formed when four member states representing 35 percent of the total EU population block a proposal from the Commission, despite the positive vote in the Parliament. In theory, Kosovo should already have the support of the member states with larger populations, with the exception of Spain.

However, reflecting on the votes in the Parliament from Sept. 13, I will check if a blocking minority can be formed in the Council.

In the EP it is proven that there are enough votes for the proposal to pass after it arrives from the Trilogues, but contrary to the EP where members can vote based on their personal opinion, and have some loyalty both to the country and the political party they represent, in the Council, the members represent their governments.

The Council, depending on the legislative issue at hand, gathers in different formats. In the case of visa liberalization, it is expected that the Council will gather under the Justice and Home Affairs format. In the Council there are no personal opinions, representatives always vote based on direction from their government back at home.

In a scenario where all member states are present (minus the U.K. and Ireland), they all vote either pro or against, and all five non-recognizers vote against, the proposal is approved, as there are enough votes in favor.

Assuming that government representatives from countries who have recognized Kosovo will not be part of a blocking minority, this leaves the five non-recognizers, namely Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Cyprus and Greece. They fulfill the first condition of a blocking minority of at least four member states, but they don’t fulfill the condition of 35 percent of the population, since all five of them calculate to 18.85 percent of the total EU population, minus the U.K. and Ireland.*

Therefore, a blocking minority cannot be formed to block the proposal from the Commission on lifting visa restrictions for Kosovo. In a scenario where all member states are present (minus the U.K. and Ireland), they all vote either pro or against, and all five non-recognizers vote against, the proposal is approved, as there are enough votes in favor. This is in fact a probable scenario.

But there is also a second scenario, taking into account the results of the vote in the parliament. Therefore, besides the five non-recognizers I have added two countries whose members in the EP voted against the proposal from the European Commission on visa liberalization from Kosovo: the Netherlands, and Denmark.

Nevertheless, even without their vote, the proposal shall pass. The threshold for 15 members voting in favor will still be reached, and the population threshold will also be reached. Removing Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Cyprus and Greece would still leave 75.95 percent of the population voting in favor.

However, if France joined that bloc then the proposal would fail to have the backing of 65 percent of the population, with the total in favor falling to 60.78 percent. In fact, if France were to be joined by just one of Denmark or the Netherlands in opposition to the proposal alongside the five non-recognizers, the proposal would fail to reach the required total of 65 percent.

The decision to grant visa free travel to Kosovo citizens is long overdue and the lack of it should shame the conscience of all EU members. Kosovo is among the countries with the largest diaspora residing in EU countries. The denial for Kosovars to visit family relatives, to participate in joy and in grief is not just wrong but a violation of basic human rights.

*Calculations done at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/council-eu/voting-system/voting-calculator/. Anyone can visit the link and calculate the outcome of votes in the Council.

Editor’s note: Corrections have been made to this article to reflect the fact that the United Kingdom and Ireland do not vote in the European Council on Council Regulation 539/2001. The article previously stated that a bloc of France, Denmark, the Netherlands and the five non-recognizers would not be able to prevent the passing of the proposal, which was inaccurate.

Feature image: Besnik Bajrami / K2.0.

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