The Covid-19 crisis with its overall ban on entry to the Schengen zone by non-EU residents and citizens may present a window of opportunity to allow visa free travel for Kosovars, writes Dr Bernard Nikaj.
Dr Bernard Nikaj is Kosovo’s Ambassador to the EU.
While most in Europe are struggling to cope with isolation and not being able to travel as the new normal, unprecedented in their lifetime, this has been Kosovo’s reality since the early 90s. While Kosovo’s neighbours gained visa free travel in the Schengen zone 11 years ago, Kosovo has been in isolation all along.
In June 2012, the Commission presented Kosovo with a Roadmap on Visa Liberalisation which included 95 criteria – about double the number given to its neighbours. The European Commission confirmed their fulfilment on 18 July 2018, and it recommended liberalizing visas for the citizens of Kosovo. The same recommendation was repeated in May 2019 in the Country Report for Kosovo as part of the Enlargement Package. In the meantime, Kosovo received numerous affirmative votes in the European Parliament – the EU institution that most directly represents the will of the people of the EU – several resolutions, and several letters written by MEPs to the European Council and Member States. Despite this, decision making in the Council has stalled.
The crisis brought unto us by the coronavirus has sparked a lot of debate in Europe on the issue of solidarity. While the topic continues to spark debate within the European Union, it is clear that this core European value is alive and kicking when it comes to the EU’s assistance in the Western Balkans. The European Union has stood by our side at each step of managing the crisis. From providing emergency assistance for the purchase of medical supplies, to offering inclusion in EU mechanisms to combat the crisis as well as providing a sizeable financial assistance to address the socio-economic aftermath of the crisis.
The ability to act in these times of crisis has gone even further. After a long delay, EU Member States have finally given their green light to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. At the same time, the countries of the Western Balkans have risen above themselves in making sure their cooperation is exemplary when it comes to managing the crisis. The establishment and operation of green lanes to facilitate mobility of essential goods in the Western Balkans, with some exceptions, has shown that when there is a will there is a way. Even in the Balkans!
Kosovo has played an important part in all these achievements. From lifting the tariffs imposed a while ago on Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to ensuring full application of all agreements reached in Brussels to working closely with all the neighbouring countries to make sure that the citizens and businesses can be effective in addressing the challenges of the crisis, to working with the EU on repatriation efforts.
Still, Kosovo remains not only the last country in the Western Balkans, in the Stabilization Association Process and Enlargement Process, but also the only country in Europe except Russia and Belarus to still require visas for short-term travel into the Schengen area. Moreover, Kosovo has been for the longest time in the process of visa-liberalization and has spent the longest time between a positive recommendation of the European Commission and actual liberalization.
The Zagreb Summit presents a good opportunity to correct this injustice. The Summit will bring together the EU institutions, the EU-27 and all the six Western Balkan leaders. This format is perfect for taking clear decisions on the future of EU-Western Balkan relations. The success of the Summit will depend on the EU’s ability to provide concrete steps and timelines for the region, including for the citizens of Kosovo. What we are all waiting for is to be treated as equals with our neighbours – to get what the European Commission and the European Parliament deem we deserve; what we have in fact worked for and earned.
Indeed, the on-going crisis with its restrictions on international travel and overall ban on entry to the Schengen zone by non-EU residents and citizens, presents a window of opportunity. Given the completion of the criteria on the part of Kosovo, and the institutional recognition of this fact by at least two of its main institutions, this process sooner or later will have to be completed. Granting visa liberalisation to Kosovo at this time would allow a gradual introduction of this new freedom for Kosovo citizens.
The question is not whether to grant visa liberalisation to Kosovo or not. The question is when. We believe that the right time is now.