Prizren, Kosovo. Photo: flickr/rich rich rich
Prizren, Kosovo. Photo: flickr/rich rich rich

ESI Kosovo country page

 

A visa roadmap for Kosovo

On 14 June 2012, Kosovo received its much awaited visa liberalisation roadmap. At a small ceremony in Brussels, Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom handed it over to Kosovo government officials, saying she was "particularly pleased to be able to present this eagerly anticipated document".

The roadmap lists all the reforms and requirements that Kosovo needs to complete in order to qualify for visa-free travel to the Schengen area, which is made up mostly of EU countries.

Indeed, it had been a long wait. Kosovo is the only country in the Balkans whose citizens are still asked to acquire a visa to enter the Schengen zone. While Kosovo's neighbours - Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia - underwent an EU-led visa liberalisation process between 2008 and 2010, being granted visa-free travel at the end, Kosovo has so far remained an isolated "visa ghetto".

ESI had advocated a roadmap process for Kosovo since 2009 when the young republic was put on the "black list" of the EU Visa Regulation, whereas its neighbours had been offered a visa liberalisation process. In July 2009, ESI's advisory board which includes former EU interior ministers Giuliano Amato and Otto Schily published an open letter, noting:

"We are disturbed by the fact that Kosovo has been left out of this process, a blanket visa requirement having been proposed for all of its residents, including those with Serbian citizenship – this, without any mention of a process that could possibly lead to this requirement being lifted.

".... Kosovo should also receive a visa roadmap. It must be given the opportunity to implement the same far-reaching reforms that the other five Balkan countries have set out to implement and to thus contribute to its own security, as well as to that of the entire region and the whole EU. Once Kosovo meets these conditions, the visa requirement should be abolished."

Amato, Schily and others rejected the argument that all 27 EU member states had to recognise Kosovo's independence before another step could be taken:

"If Kosovo can be placed on the visa "black list" without an EU consensus on its status, then it can also be placed on the "white list" once it meets the necessary technical requirements. The visa liberalisation process should be considered status neutral by the EU."

A group of Kosovo's leading civil society representatives, Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, made a similar point:

"We are aware that EU member states disagree over the status of Kosovo. Indeed, the signatories of this letter also have different views on this subject.

"However, we can all agree that leaving Kosovo residents, whatever their ethnicity, trapped in a visa ghetto, when all other Balkan people from the Adriatic to the Black Sea are able to travel freely, would be a disastrous policy."

Waiting for visa. Photo: European Commission
Waiting for visa. Photo: European Commission

The European Commission at last recommended a visa liberalisation process in October 2009, but - due to fears  of migration and disagreements about Kosovo’s status - EU countries were slow in following up on it. In November 2009, ESI published a discussion paper called "Isolating Kosovo? Kosovo vs. Afghanistan 5:22" where we pointed out that Kosovo's citizens could travel without a visa only to 5 countries: neighbouring Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia, Turkey and Haiti. Afghan citizens did not need a visa for 22 countries. We analysed the reasons given against a roadmap process, concluding that the status issue did not legally preclude a visa-free regime and that it was counter-productive to deny Kosovo a roadmap process due to migration and security concerns:

"First, the very idea of a visa roadmap is to identify and work on concrete problems that concern the EU. Giving Kosovo a roadmap does not promise Kosovars that they will get visa-free travel without meeting very demanding conditions. On the contrary, it spells out the necessary changes and incentivizes the Kosovo government to implement (often costly) reforms. It provides civil society and the media with benchmarks to hold their government responsible if reforms slow down. Second, a visa roadmap would provide EULEX with a substantial increase in legitimacy by allowing it to help the Kosovo government achieve a goal that all Kosovo citizens embrace."

In 2010, Kosovo embarked on a series of reforms that the European Commission had put forward as preconditions for a visa liberalisation process, including the implementation of provisions for the readmission of Kosovars that are deported back to Kosovo by EU member states; their reintegration in Kosovo society; enhanced border security; and secure management of civil registries and the issued personal documents. In the summer of 2010, we researched the situation on the ground in Kosovo and found that Kosovo had made impressive progress on each issue. Still, no visa liberalisation process was on the horizon. In the paper "Isolation Confirmed. How the EU is undermining its interests in Kosovo" from November 2010, we concluded that Kosovo was clearly discriminated against.

"This discriminatory treatment is not only a problem for citizens of Kosovo but also undermines the interests of the European Union. It undermines the EU's efforts to promote much needed institution building in Pristina. It weakens the position of pro-European reformers in Kosovo. It makes it less likely that the most ambitious rule of law missions in the EU's history, EULEX, will be as successful as it could be. It makes it more difficult to create the conditions in Kosovo which would allow EU member states to repatriate thousands of illegal Kosovo residents without meeting loud criticism from international organisations and NGOs. Current EU policy preserves rather than changes a problematic status quo in which Kosovars are the fifth largest group of nationals requesting asylum across the EU today, despite the existing visa requirement. It also undermines the EU's leverage when it comes to moderating in the upcoming dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina."

However, it was not before 19 January 2012 that the European Commission opened a visa dialogue with Kosovo. Almost exactly five months later, on 14 June 2012, it handed over the roadmap with all the conditions that Kosovo will have to meet. The process that then began must be as "strict but fair" as the process that Kosovo's neighbours underwent.

One of ESI's long-standing demands has been that the EU's catalogue of conditions for Kosovo be called a "roadmap", as in the case of the other five Western Balkan countries. In our November 2010 paper "Isolation Confirmed", we explained how member states such as Germany were opposed to using the term "roadmap" first for the EU's neighbours in the East, which were offered visa liberalisation in 2009, and then for Kosovo. Germany and others argued that the term might imply "automaticity" and a short implementation process. We are pleased to see that the EU's has got over such fears.  Kosovo must be treated like the other Western Balkan countries, and this begins with the name of the catalogue of conditions. We have also taken a close look at the Kosovo roadmap, concluding in our comparative analysis "Moving the goalposts?":

"The Kosovo roadmap lists more benchmarks than the roadmaps for the other Western Balkan countries, but the requirements are essentially the same. It makes provision for the fact that Kosovo has not been recognised by five EU member states and that it is not a member of the UN and the Council of Europe. This need not make meeting the conditions more difficult for Kosovo.

"What is of concern is the possibility of amendments of the roadmap during implementation, which potentially undermines conditionality and the merit-based approach. Kosovo should be given the same strict, but fair process as it neighbours.

"Although the ultimate decision to grant visa-free travel rests with the Council and the member states, it is important that, like in the case of the other Western Balkans states, the Commission is in the driver's seat during the technical process. As long as this is the case, Kosovo policymakers and civil society should be able to learn from the reform experience of Kosovo's neighbours without concern for the goalposts being moved by the EU during the process."

ESI is grateful to the Robert Bosch Stiftung for having supported ESI's visa-related work on Kosovo.

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