The visa situation in Kosovo in June 2011

On 17 February 2008, Kosovo declared independence.

Just a few weeks earlier, on 28 January 2008, the EU finally decided to give Western Balkan countries the opportunity to eliminate the Schengen visa requirement imposed on them. The EU offered to lift the visa requirement if they met a series of challenging conditions in the fields of document security, border control and the fight against illegal migration, organised crime and corruption. The conditions were set out in a "visa roadmap" that was presented to each country.

Five countries were invited to participate in the process: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Kosovo was not part of this group, which was perhaps not surprising given its undecided status.

Over the next two years, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia met all the conditions during a well-structured process, which was strict, but fair. The visa requirement for their citizens was lifted on 19 December 2009. Albania and Bosnia needed one year more, so that their citizens have been able to travel visa-free to the EU since 15 December 2010.

Kosovo, however, is still excluded from the process.

Kosovo has been recognised by 76 UN countries, including 22 EU member states. In fact, only five EU member states have not recognised Kosovo: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain.

In terms of travel opportunities, Kosovo is one of the most isolated places on earth. Not only the EU and associated Schengen countries require Kosovars to obtain a visa before they can visit them; most other countries in the world also require visas. Holders of the Kosovo passport can travel to only five countries without a visa: neighbouring Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Turkey, and Haiti.

The EU did not allow Serbia to issue the new biometric Serbian passport, which allows for visa-free travel, to Kosovo residents. Kosovars have the right to obtain this passport, but it can be obtained only at a special department in Belgrade – and holders of passports issued by this special department are banned from travelling to the Schengen zone without a visa.

The rationale for this measure is fear of illegal migration from Kosovo. This fear is one of the  reasons why the EU has been reluctant to offer a visa liberalisation process to Kosovo. The other one is the claim by the five non-recognising EU countries that Kosovo's unresolved status makes it difficult to design a proper visa liberalisation process.

Both arguments are unsustainable. If Kosovo were given a roadmap and treated in the same manner as its neighbours, it would put in place safeguards against illegal migration – this would be one of the required conditions. And regarding the status question, visa policy is status neutral.

This was finally acknowledged by the EU member states in December 2009, when they agreed "that Kosovo should also benefit from the perspective of eventual visa liberalisation once all conditions are met" (without prejudice to Member States' positions on status). These Council conclusions came in response to an October 2009 policy paper by the European Commission, which strongly suggested a visa liberalisation process for Kosovo.

However, the Commission has refrained from using the same terminology as used in the process for the first five Western Balkan countries. Instead of a "visa roadmap", Kosovo will have a "comprehensive strategy" "with benchmarks" "to guide Kosovo's efforts to meet the EU's requirements for visa liberalisation". The use of different language may jeopardise the end goal. Why is Kosovo subject to different conditions in the visa liberalisation process than its neighbours?

Before a visa dialogue is opened and Kosovo receives the visa strategy, Kosovo must meet a number of conditions, some of which the other five Western Balkan did not have to meet. Like the other countires, it has to put into place and implement provisions for readmission. It has done it. However, Kosovo has also been asked to draft and implement a strategy to integrate forcefully returned Kosovars; to enhance the security of borders and to ensure secure management of civil registries and issued documents. The other five Western Balkan countries had to do these things only as part of the visa liberalisation process, but not ahead of it. Kosovo has clearly been discriminated, which ESI has pointed out in its reort “Isolation Confirmed. How the EY is undermining its interests in Kosovo” from 22 November 2010 (see further below).  

As of June 2011, Kosovo still had no visa liberalisation process.

However, it has a lot of good will and trust in the EU. It has resolved the readmission issue as required. It is implementing the readmission strategy. It has agreed to take back the 14,000 Kosovars from Germany, including 10,000 Roma, whose reintegration poses a particular challenge.

From the beginning, ESI has demanded that Kosovo officially receive a roadmap from the Commission like its neighbours and is given the chance to carry out the same reforms – reforms that will make the EU safer as a whole and further the goals of the EULEX mission in Kosovo. The prospect of the abolition of the visa requirement will encourage Kosovo's government to carry out reforms in the rule of law field, which will boost EULEX and increase the likelihood of its success.

It is now more important than ever that a roadmap, which is also called "roadmap", is handed over. The roadmap will reassure Kosovo that the outcome of the process will be the same as that of its neighbours: visa-free travel. Different terminology may imply that Kosovo is a different case: it might be subject to different requirements and may never reap the same reward at the end. The fact that Kosovo has to design and implement a reintegration strategy as a precondition for the visa liberalisation process is a worrying sign.

On the Kosovo webpage, we are presenting ESI's activities to help Kosovo receive a full-fledged visa liberalisation process based on a visa roadmap. We are detailing Kosovo's activities to qualify for such a process and meet as many benchmarks as possible in advance. We are also offering a chronology of events and excerpts from EU policy documents related to the issue of visa-free travel for Kosovo. Finally, we recommend reports to read and films and exhibitions to watch.

We are grateful to the Robert Bosch Stiftung which has supported ESI's activities on visa-free travel for Kosovo as part of the Schengen White List Project.

Bosch Stiftung

The Schengen White List Project