Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) Dialogue – Plenary meeting in Pristina. Photo: European Commission Liaison Office to Kosovo
Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) Dialogue – Plenary meeting in Pristina. Photo: European Commission Liaison Office to Kosovo

The EU's approach to visa-free travel for Kosovo

In January 2008, when the EU launched the visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans, Kosovo had not yet declared independence. The countries that were invited to participate in the process were Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Kosovo proclaimed independence on 17 February 2008, but this did not alter its exclusion from the visa process. One reason was the differing views of the EU member states on Kosovo's independence. While 22 member states recognised Kosovo in the months following its declaration of independence, 5 EU countries still do not consider Kosovo to be a sovereign state: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain.

One consequence of this situation is that Kosovo cannot enter into contractual relations with the EU, as the five non-recognising countries will not sign any document that might imply that Kosovo is a state. However, the status issue does not prevent the EU from offering a visa liberalisation process to Kosovo and lifting the visa requirement, which the EU would acknowledge later.

In 2009, it became clear that Kosovo's unresolved status was not the only concern of EU countries regarding visa-free travel for Kosovars. In June 2009, when the European Commission prepared its legislative proposal to lift the visa restrictions on Serbia (as well as Montenegro and Macedonia), several EU member states, particularly Germany, insisted that this should under no circumstances lead to visa-free travel for citizens of Kosovo. Serbia regarded them as its own citizens and issued Serbian passports to them.

The solution was contradictory and discriminatory: Serbia was allowed to continue to issue the new biometric passports to Kosovars, but these passports do not allow for visa-free travel. They are issued by a special department in Belgrade and are thus recognisable. EU border guards require the holders of such passports to have a Schengen visa before they allow them to enter the Schengen zone. In its legislative proposal, the Commission justified this policy with "security concerns regarding in particular the potential for illegal migration from persons residing in Kosovo".

This new policy, which was adopted by EU member states in November, became effective on 19 December 2009. Since this date, Kosovo also finds itself on the "black Schengen list", which is annexed to the EU Council Regulation that determines the countries whose nationals do, or do not, need a visa to enter the Schengen area. This formalised the visa requirement that had been in practice all along.

In the meantime, the first concrete possibility of a visa liberalisation process had emerged for Kosovo. On 14 October 2009, the European Commission issued a policy paper on Kosovo stating that "Kosovo citizens need to share further in the benefits of EU approximation, including the possibility to travel visa-free in the EU." It argued that the prospect of visa-free travel has been „a powerful incentive" for the other five Western Balkan countries to carry out reforms in the area of freedom of movement, and suggested:

"The Commission proposes to move forward with a structured approach to bring Kosovo's citizens closer to the EU through a visa dialogue with the perspective of eventual visa liberalisation when the necessary reforms will have been undertaken. Based on a thorough assessment the Commission proposes to draft a comprehensive strategy to guide Kosovo's efforts to meet the EU's requirements for visa liberalisation. This strategy will set benchmarks to measure Kosovo's progress in the context of a visa dialogue and will be presented to the Council for information."

What was disconcerting to ESI is the fact that the Commission avoided using the same terminology that it had used for the successful process with the other five Western Balkan countries. It called the visa liberalisation process "a structured approach", and referred to the "roadmap" as "a strategy" with "benchmarks".

The Commission has argued that Kosovo is a special case due to the EU's lack of unity regarding its status. However, this makes the whole visa liberalisation process for Kosovo uncertain. If different terminology is used, the process for Kosovo might be different from that for the other five Western Balkan countries, and it might have a different outcome – the visa barrier may remain in place at the end. ESI therefore calls on the Commission and EU member states to treat Kosovo in the same manner as the other five Western Balkan countries and use the same terminology.

In December 2009, under the Swedish Presidency, EU member states endorsed the Commission-proposed visa liberalisation process for Kosovo, including the new language. Meeting on 7/8 December, EU foreign ministers agreed:

"The Council stresses that Kosovo should also benefit from the perspective of eventual visa liberalisation3 once all conditions are met and invites the Commission to move forward with a structured approach to bring the people of Kosovo closer to the EU."

"3 without prejudice to Member States' positions on status"

In its October 2009 paper, the Commission had mentioned preconditions that Kosovo would have to meet before a visa dialogue is opened, primarily "functioning readmission arrangements". It wrote that "Kosovo needs to adapt its legislation, strengthen its administrative capacity to process readmission requests and implement an effective reintegration strategy."

The Commission also began to engage informally with Kosovo on visas. At a meeting on justice and home affairs issues, which took place in Pristina 27-29 January 2010 in the framework of the new Stabilisation and Association Process Dialogue, Commission officials stressed that Kosovo would have to focus on readmission and reintegration in order to qualify for a visa dialogue. The launch of the visa dialogue would mark the beginning of the visa liberalisation process.

The Schengen White List Project