The European Commission’s recent statement that Kosovo had fulfilled all of Brussels’ necessary visa liberalisation benchmarks and that the European Parliament and Council should proceed with lifting visa requirements for Kosovars has reopened a debate about the speed and economic viability of granting visa-free status to a new impoverished corner of the former Communist Eastern Bloc.
If the Commission’s proposal on visa-liberalisation is approved, Kosovo will become the sixth Western Balkans country to be granted with the coveted visa-free status to Europe’s Schengen Zone.
The Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs, and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos, whose own home country of Greece does not recognise Kosovo’s decade-old declaration of independence from neighbouring Serbia, said that the former government of Kosovar Prime Minister Isa Mustafa had made significant progress in fighting crime and corruption and lauded Mustafa’s border deal with Montenegro, a dispute that dated back to the early 1990s when the two Balkan nations were a part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
The Commission’s plan to grant Kosovars with visa-free access to the EU as soon as possible will hardly meet any obstacles within the corridors of the EU institutions, which remain strongly committed to the European prospects of the Western Balkans, it may provoke anger among right-wing populist parties in Italy, Hungary, and Poland, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric under is often aimed at potential economic migrants coming from the Western Balkans and former Soviet republics, who they claim will ‘steal jobs’ from EU citizens.
Dušan Reljić, a leading expert on the Western Balkans and head of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs’ Brussels office, nevertheless, argues that the Muslim Albanians and Orthodox Christian Serbs who wanted to leave Kosovo had already migrated to the EU over the course of a two-year period in 2015-2017 and no longer pose a major threat to the EU’s economic security.
“In the course of the peak of migration crisis in Europe (in 2015-2017), about 60,000 of Kosovars, (Albanians, Serbs, Gypsies, and Balkan Turks) applied for asylum in the EU and later moved, mainly, to Germany. Granting visa-free status to Kosovo will not be a major threat to the EU, nor a game-changer,” Reljić said.
Though the visa-liberalisation regime will have no significant impact on the EU Member States’ social and economic systems, as many populists warn, it may, nevertheless, divide the EU over the process of further enlargement.
Germany, the main economic engine of Europe and the fourth-largest economy in the world, favours a broad and expansionist policy for the European Union. France, however, prefers a deeper, more integrated existing bloc that takes a more sceptical view of any further enlargement into Eastern Europe.
In May, French Emmanuel Macron said that he is in favour of permanently tethering the Balkans to the EU, but that enlargement has to be considered with a degree of “prudence and rigour”.
In 2012, the European Commission declared that it had developed a roadmap for Kosovo to receive a visa liberalisation regime, but demanded that the government in the Kosovar capital of Pristina step-up its efforts in fight against the endemic corruption and rampant organised crime that has plagued the tiny, landlocked nation since it successfully broke away from Serbia’s control after a 16-month war with Belgrade culminated in a 10 week bombing campaign by NATO-led air forces in 1999.
As part of its demands, Brussels had ordered government of former Prime Minister Mustafa to settle all border demarcation disputes with Montenegro before the Commission could trigger the start visa-liberalisation process for Kosovo as the European institutions are officially averse to dealing with potential future Member States and Partner Countries that have outstanding territorial disagreements.
Though the government in Pristina has the backing of European heavyweights Germany and France in its claim to statehood, EU nations such as Spain, Greece, Cyprus, and Romania have refused to officially side with the Kosovar government.
While Kosovo has made undeniably significant strides in its effort to reign in certain organised crime elements, corruption and 40% unemployment continue to stunt the burgeoning nation’s growth.
Further complicating Kosovo’s EU ambitions are issues of an independent judiciary, human trafficking, and the prosecution of members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) for alleged war crimes committed during the bloody 1998-99 conflict with Serbia. The latter two issues have involved high-ranking Kosovar government officials, including current Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, President Hashim Thaçi, and former parliamentary majority leader Xhavit Haliti of having had extensive criminal links while serving as leaders of the KLA.
Thaçi, in particular, has been singled out by none other than Germany’s BND intelligence service and in a report to the Council of Europe for his alleged involvement in a range of atrocities as the political leader of the KLA that included the trafficking of organs taken from prisoners of war and civilians immediately after the late-1990s Kosovo War and for operating large narcotics rings that ran through its neighbour and close ally, Albania, and later into Western Europe.
The accusations have, reportedly, caught the attention of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which, if given enough evidence, could charge Thaçi with war crimes in much the same manner as it did with Thaçi’s wartime nemesis, Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, who died while on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity in 2006.