Saturday

20th Jan 2018

Kosovo's gloomy visa-free future

A festive atmosphere broke out in Pristina on Wednesday (4 May) as the European Commission announced it would recommend to scrap visa requirements for Kosovars.

Prime minister Isa Mustafa updated his Facebook profile with a picture of the EU and Kosovo flags.

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  • Last year, civic societies made a visa liberalisation campaign asking the EU for visa free travels. (Photo: Kosovo Foundation for Open Society)

”Congratulations, fellow citizens! A positive recommendation for the removal of visas is the most deserved appreciation for Kosovo’s citizens by the European Union. Every day, the result of government efforts are becoming more tangible for Kosovo citizens, who are citizens of the European continent and values”, he said.

Kosovo is a visa enclave in the Balkan region, where all its neighbours have been able to travel freely to the Schengen area for years.

EU states have been reluctant to extend the courtesy to Kosovo, worrying it would drive immigration.

In Europe’s youngest state, the median age is 28, 40 percent of the population is unemployed and average salaries are €350 a month. An estimated 10 percent of its 1.6 million people suddenly went abroad in 2014, driven by lack of prospects at home.

What motivated the EU executive to change its recommendation?

Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration who broke the news, said Kosovo had made great progress in meeting technical and political benchmarks.

”This is the result of hard work and successful efforts of the Kosovo authorities in achieving far-reaching and difficult reforms,” he said.

Others pointed to strategic reasons.

“Visa liberalisation for Kosovo is not happening because the EU decided to grant us something,” Agron Bajrami, the editor-in-chief of the Koha Ditore daily, told Kosovo 2.0, a news website.

“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 to Kosovo.”

This doesn't mean that Kosovo got a discount.

”The visa deal was promised and postponed for years. Kosovo had to fulfill more conditions than other countries”, said Krenar Gashi, a scholar at the university of Ghent.

”At one point, the commission asked that the Ombudsman should own its premises rather than to rent them.”

Two requirements must still be met before the European Parliament and EU states can approve the deal.

Kosovo has to step up the fight against organised crime and settle a border dispute with Montenegro.

Gashi said the call to fight crime is ”so broad it doesn’t mean anything”.

”There’s a lack of political willingness and capacity in Kosovo to enforce the rule of law,” he said. “It could however lead to a couple of spectacular arrests to showcase that authorities are trying.”

Last week, Kosovo police and Eulex, the EU's rule-of-law mission, made 42 raids and arrested six people over a €30 million public property theft. Several of the suspects are public figures, including the ringleader, Azem Syla, a politician affiliated with the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo.

”It’s very simple”, Avramopoulos said when journalists asked what stick the EU will use to measure progress in the authorities’ will to fight crime. ”We will judge by the results.”

It remains unclear how the visa deal will work in the five member states that don’t recognise Kosovo: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain.

Asked by press on Spain, for instance, Avramopoulos said: “Spain knows how to handle this issue.”

A Spanish source told EUobserver that EU visa liberalisation wouldn’t change Spain’s current position, which is not to let in people with Kosovo travel documents.

”We will still have the problem of recognition of the documents”, the source said.

It also remains to be seen how the deal would improve Kosovar people’s lives.

Roderick Parkes, formerly a researcher at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs, told EUobserver that visa liberalisation can reduce incentives to move abroad.

”The more options people have, the better these things function. If you make it more difficult for people to travel, you will see a spike in departures. People who left will also stay away because they will be afraid they won’t be able to come back”, he said.

Krenar Gashi said the deal could end in disappointment.

”People are happy now, everyone in Pristina is talking about it. It's because politicians have promoted visa liberalisation for years as a significant step toward full EU membership”, he said.

”But it won’t make much difference. Many people don’t have the money to travel. When they realise how little this matters for their day to day lives, for Kosovo's prospects for full EU membership, this … effect will vanish.”

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