Kosovo is appealing to Brussels to grant its citizens visa-free travel to the EU. But at a time of crises in migration, terrorism and people-smuggling, some are sceptical. A decision on the waiver is expected in the coming days.
Matthew Tempest spoke with Bekim Çollaku, Kosovo’s Minister of European Integration.
Why should the EU offer visa-waiver travel to Kosovo now, in the midst of a migration crisis, a terrorism crisis, and with the smuggling of arms and people through the whole Balkan region, with right-wing populists on the rise across the continent?
Because this process should be based on the agreed requirements in the visa liberalisation roadmap, and not issues or considerations that have nothing to do with Kosovo or this process. The 1.8 million citizens of Kosovo deserve a fair treatment by their neighbours in the region. Kosovo has adhered to a rigorous visa-liberalisation process since 2012, through which it has fulfilled a doubled set of criteria, set by the EU. On the issues you mentioned, we have dealt effectively with a migration flow, and we are a committed partner in fighting terrorism. Kosovo is a leading country in the region for fighting against terrorism.
When five out of the 28 members of the bloc, not least Spain and Greece, do not recognise Kosovo’s independence, what realistic chance does it ever have of joining the EU?
It’s true that five member states have not recognised (us) yet, but Kosovo, along with the region, has confirmation of a European future and I’m confident that we’ll get there on the back of meeting accession criteria. When the EU has a political will, it can deliver, as it did this year by enabling Kosovo to sign its first legal contractual agreement with EU, the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. In addition to this, the recognition of Kosovo by five non-recognizers will happen because that is the only way to ensure the EU perspective for the whole region, including Kosovo.
To put that question the other way around, what can Kosovo, a country of only 1.8m people, offer the EU?
The size of the country is not a condition for membership, and in fact it can only be a helpful circumstance in the context of reforms. Kosovo is an undeniable part of the puzzle of Balkans, which will contribute to peace, stability and prosperity of the whole region and in turn for the rest of the continent. The multiethnic country of Kosovo is entirely established as an independent state, based on the fundamental values of freedom, democracy and peace cherished by the EU, its members, and all civilized states around the world.
How politically stable is Kosovo? The Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, suggested earlier this year it could be merged into a greater Albania. This week, the opposition set off teargas in parliament. These are hardly western European ‘norms’?
No, that is not a realistic scenario. Everything we have done in our recent history is to gain independence and consolidate and develop our country, (which) is moving towards fulfillment of its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. The current challenges that we are facing are not aimed or related to that question. I agree that the disruption of the institutional life is not in accordance with European norms and values, and that’s why we call on our opposition to cease with disruption, and rather engage in discussing all issues in line with the law and through democratic institutions.
Relations between the EU and Serbia are already difficult – aiding Kosovo will only make them more difficult?
The two countries have their EU paths on their own merits, but it is a clear requirement on the part of the EU that in parallel, the two normalise relations. I would argue that the sooner that Serbia recognises the reality of an independent Kosovo, the quicker its journey to the EU will be. And Serbia is aware that it needs to recognize Kosovo at some point.
There has been much reporting that Kosovo is a haven for radical Islamists. What is the government in Pristina doing to counter this problem, or is it not a problem?
I’ve yet to see those reports that say that Kosovo is a haven, but it’s true that Kosovo is not exempt from having to deal with the issue, as are many countries in the EU. We have provided our support and help to the international fight against violent extremism locally, but also in the context of the global coalition against ISIS. We have approved a law against participation in foreign (conflicts) early on. Dozens have been arrested in several large scale police actions, many of them conducted in cooperation with police from several EU members. We have made notable efforts to promote interfaith dialogue as a means to countering violent extremism.
Again, it is perceived that Kosovo has major problems with corruption and organised crime. Is this just a stereotype, or is Pristina able to counter the problem?
As with the rest of the countries that are part of the enlargement process, Kosovo too has challenges related to the rule of law, but we are taking concrete actions to deal with these issues. Kosovo has hosted and has cooperated fully (with) the largest rule of law mission of the EU and cooperation. We have undertaken actions to improve the rule of law institutions to be able to deal with problems in this field. But this is not something that can be changed overnight, Many arrests have been made, and the institutions are doing their job, but you have to take into account that due processes have to take place, and this takes time.
Montenegro has just been given the go-ahead to join NATO. Does Kosovo wish to do so too?
Yes, the recent news for the doors of NATO being opened to Montenegro is a good one. We are doing everything we can to bring Kosovo into NATO as soon as possible. This is a big aspiration for the citizens of Kosovo, and we are taking the necessary steps to get there.