Kosovo’s European future edges closer

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Hashim Thaçi. His centre-right PDK party and its coalition with the conservative LDK party of Prime Minister Isa Mustafa has long been riven by conflict. [Munich Security Conference]

Kosovo’s increasing cooperation and gradual integration with the EU single market lays the foundation for the country’s ultimate goal: EU accession, writes Hashim Thaçi.

Hashim Thaçi is the Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Kosovo

Tuesday 27 October 2015 will go down as a crucial date in the history of Kosovo, marking the date that our country signed its first agreement with the European Union. It is Kosovo’s ‘Europe Day’.

The Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) signed by our Prime Minister and Federica Mogherini, the High Representative, is the first formal contract between the EU and Kosovo and, as such, is the crucial first step towards the EU accession process.

As Europe’s youngest country, which declared independence only in 2008 after being torn apart by war and genocide less than two decades ago, signing this deal and becoming part of the European family is rich in political symbolism.

It is also a success story for the EU’s policy in the Western Balkans.

Negotiations on the SAA began following the conclusion of the 2013 Brussels agreement between Kosovo and Serbia which kick-started the process of normalising relations between our two countries.

This August, we signed four agreements with Belgrade that will increase co-operation in the energy and telecommunications sectors, and devolve powers to the Serb communities in northern Kosovo.

Meanwhile, our parliament also agreed this summer to amend Kosovo’s constitution to set up a special court in The Hague to investigate alleged war crimes committed during the conflict.

Completing the SAA is a hugely important step for Kosovo. It sends a positive message to those working hard to bring Kosovo into the European family and place it squarely within the EU enlargement process.

The SAA establishes a free trade area between the EU and Kosovo, and requires Kosovo to gradually apply the EU’s acquis communautaire to a range of policy areas including justice, trade, education, employment, energy and the environment.

As a result, it will help integrate the Kosovo economy into the EU single market, building confidence in Kosovo’s economy, increasing Foreign Direct Investment and boosting competitiveness.

It will also develop political dialogue between the EU and Kosovo. When the time is right, this could lead to Kosovo fulfilling its long-term ambitions of joining the EU.

A key priority for Kosovo’s citizens now is that we achieve the long awaited promise of visa liberalisation with the EU, making it easier for our people to visit their friends and family in the EU.

The Commission is expected to make a proposal on this issue before Christmas.

Kosovo has now met all the technical requirements of the EU’s visa liberalisation roadmap, with improvements spanning from document security, border management, fighting organised crime and corruption to minority rights, repatriation and reintegration policy for illegal migrants.

We also successfully dealt with an unexpected surge of illegal migration of its citizens to the EU, driven by regional organised crime groups. Within months we managed to lower the numbers of those who wanted to leave Kosovo by the hundreds per day to nearly zero.

In addition to that, we have taken concrete steps to encourage Kosovars to return and provided support for their reintegration back home. More than 15,000 Kosovars have returned home this year, a majority of which came back voluntarily.

For these reasons we hope to see a positive recommendation from the EU soon. One crucial aspect of the SAA is that it entrenches the process of dialogue between Brussels and Pristina, and of political and economic reform in Kosovo.

We know that the reform process is far from complete. Kosovo’s annual ‘Country Progress’ report, which will be published by the Commission in the coming weeks, is likely to paint a mixed picture, particularly on issues such as the rule of law and public administration.

The government of Kosovo is deeply committed to the process of European integration and to our ultimate objective of EU membership. The greater the EU’s presence in our country, the more prosperous and stable it will be. This will benefit the region and the rest of Europe.

Now that the SAA is in place, Kosovo-EU relations will rise to a greater level of cooperation. We hope that this is the beginning of Kosovo’s European journey.

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