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12th Apr 2024

Analysis

What does EU want for Kosovo visa-free travel?

  • Kosovo is the only place in the Western Balkans whose people need visas to enter the EU (Photo: cindy-dam)

Kosovo has been dangled a potential breakthrough on visa-free travel, but what does the EU really want in return?

The ray of light, after years of waiting, came in Pristina on 22 April when German foreign minister Heiko Maas publicly said Kosovo "has fulfilled all criteria for visa liberalisation and it should be granted".

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Maas said the same behind closed doors to EU foreign ministers in Brussels on 10 May, diplomatic sources told EUobserver.

The European Commission and EU foreign service have been saying it since 2018.

And Germany had been the biggest opponent of an EU deal, with only Denmark, France, and the Netherlands now standing in the way.

The hopes of 1.8 million people, especially Kosovo's young people, half of whom have no jobs, are hanging on what happens next.

They are the last part of the Western Balkans still behind a visa wall.

Broader faith in EU promises is also up in the air, after Bulgaria recently vetoed North Macedonia accession talks even though Skopje had met all EU demands.

And moving countries onto the EU's visa-waiver list is done by majority not unanimity.

So if the EU really wanted to press ahead, then the commission could table a vote, and Germany and others could bulldoze through the decision despite the Danish, Dutch, and French objections.

But internal EU politics makes that unlikely, sending a confusing message on due-process.

The German foreign ministry might want to go ahead, but Berlin is more divided at home than it appears abroad and its conservative interior minister, Horst Seehofer, "doesn't want to allow it [Kosovo visa-free travel] at the moment," an EU diplomat said.

Meanwhile, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands are saying Kosovo needs further reforms, which could be handled by reopening visa-free negotiations between the European Commission and Pristina.

"Our view is Kosovo hasn't met all the milestones yet," one of their diplomats said.

"This is purely based on lack of reform," he said.

"[Re-opening] visa-liberalisation talks is back on the agenda ... they could restart already in June," he added.

But opening the doors to Kosovo, a Muslim-majority society, is also bad political timing for French president Emmanuel Macron, who is preparing to fend off a challenge by the French far right in next May's elections.

And for some EU officials, the three refuseniks are doing it for more cynical reasons than technical "milestones".

"The member states who are blocking it are doing it for national reasons," an EU official told EUobserver.

If Berlin, Copenhagen, The Hague, and Paris are waiting for political timing to improve, that still leaves the question of what EU institutions are angling for.

EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell and EU enlargement commissioner Olivér Várhelyi are also pushing to resume a dialogue on normalising Kosovo-Serbia relations.

This might involve painful Kosovo concessions, such as devolving powers to an ethnic-Serb entity called the Association of Serb Municipalities.

And for some diplomats, it suited Borrell and Várhelyi for the EU to dangle the carrot of a visa-free deal, but to deliver it only after Kosovo prime minister Albin Kurti complies.

"There are people in Brussels that want to link those two [visa-free travel with the Serbia dialogue]," an EU diplomat said.

"This is something brought up ... in circles around the EEAS [Borrell's EU foreign service]," he said.

An EU official denied that there was any quid pro quo on visas and Serbia talks.

"Visa liberalisation has nothing to do with the [Serbia] dialogue," he told EUobserver.

"Visa liberalisation is purely in the hands of few member states, so I do not really see how the 'EEAS and EC can offer a deal' on this," he said.

But turning to Kurti, the EU official added: "With the [Serbia] dialogue he is not doing a favour to us, he is helping to move Kosovo on the EU path, or block it if he continues to put obstacles on that way."

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