By Rocco Losasso
The power and impact that a small booklet, varying in colour – usually red, black, green, or blue – has in the lives of citizens is sometimes underestimated. The passport, which qualifies each of us as citizens of a state, can establish a certain hierarchy. It can create first-class citizens and second-class citizens. This classification depends on the role and importance that each sovereign state has in the international community. For the “weaker” states, the relative capacity of their passport must be – so to speak – compensated for by certain procedures that allow citizens to enter another state. Nevertheless, visa procedures sometimes turn into real barriers that end up considerably reducing people’s power of movement.
In this regard, Kosovo is a striking example. The strict regulations on visa requirements have turned the country into a veritable ghetto for most citizens, for whom travelling to even the closest state in the region requires a lengthy bureaucratic process and enormous costs.
Although its strategic geographical position, political identity and culture are very close to that of the EU, the distance with the EU member states is in fact much wider and attempts to bridge it are slow to yield concrete results. Despite its active engagement in Kosovo, especially in relation to rule of law adherence and peacebuilding actions, the European Union does not seem to seriously consider the issue as a significant priority to address. The EU seems to underestimate the way in which this decision will help not only in assisting with the ‘normalisation’ of the internal socio-political conditions, but also for the substantial importance it may exert in the bilateral relations with Kosovo and in the possible accession process of this latter to the EU.
Kosovo, the second youngest state in the world, gained its independence from Serbia in 2008 through a unilateral declaration, which the International Court of Justice concluded not to be at odds with the general principles of International Law. However, still nowadays, Kosovo lacks recognition from several countries in the international community, including 5 EU member states, namely Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania. Following a general overview of how the current socio-political situation looks like in the country, one can tell that the visa issue is one of the last problems that need to be addressed, compared to the rampant corruption in central institutions, fragile dialogue between political elites and the national judiciary system, or the highly pressing community-building needs in the northern municipalities of Kosovo. However, seen from the ordinary citizen’s perspective, removing this limitation in travel could foster a “socialisation” process that would lead citizens out of their borders-designed prison. This status of perpetual institutional limbo in which the country resides creates strong structural barriers, for which the relations of third states with Kosovo reverberate in the liberty of movement of the ordinary citizens.
As a matter of fact, Kosovo passport is not eligible as one of the strongest in the world. 41 countries of the world welcome Kosovo’s citizens with visa-free or visa-on-arrival access, while 188 are the world destinations for which applying for a visa (either on-line or physical) in advance is needed, including all the bureaucratic procedures and the uncertainty of receiving it or not. Things become even more complicated if the unsettled status of Kosovo is considered. This perpetual limbo between recognition and non-recognition by other states, both European and non-European, makes the bureaucratic process even more complicated, if not inaccessible at times.
Furthermore, the fact that it is so complicated for Kosovo’s citizens to leave their country and travel abroad leads to a whole series of ‘side’ services to adapt to these conditions. The example of airline companies is one of the most illustrative of the difficulties of movement that citizens experience on a daily basis, beyond the problem of visa liberalisation. Around 20 airlines operate from Pristina Airport in Kosovo, compared to 260 companies which are based at Brussels Airport; 21 flights depart from Pristina Airport every day, while there is an average of 169 daily routes that the Brussels Airport offers its travellers. At the present situation, Kosovo’s residents can only book accessible direct flights to several Swiss and German destinations, a couple of cities in Italy and France, and two daily direct flights to Istanbul. All other destinations, both EU member states and the capital cities of neighbouring Balkan states such as Hungary, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Slovakia, can be reached by flights with stopovers that can take up to 15 hours.
Kosovo has repeatedly expressed its concerns on the issue and has made considerable efforts – also in terms of human and economic capital – to move forward. The process for advancing visa liberalisation at the EU level had its beginnings in 2012, when the Commission listed the nature of the reforms the Balkan country needed to make to meet the requirements for visa liberalisation. Following the close monitoring process pursued by the EU executive body, in 2018 it was declared that Kosovo successfully fulfilled all the requirements listed in the Visa Liberalisation Roadmap. The formal conditions set out by the Commission touch upon reintegration and readmission, document security, migration management, asylum, fight against organised crime and corruption and protection of human rights concerning the freedom of movement.
However, the firm opposition shown by several EU member states does not leave much hope of seeing imminent changes. The case of France emerges as pivotal in this respect: the country has maintained a crucial adverse position since 2018, by preventing the issue of visas from being brought to the discussion table at the Council of the EU.
Its position has been supported by, inter alia, Netherlands, Sweden and Spain, who shared the proposal discussed in the Council to flank the decision upon visas with the one on European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), consisting in the plan of making the EU member states’ national borders accessible visa-free for non-EU states’ travellers. This further attempt to postpone the discussion from the agenda generates negative feedback from citizens and lowers their enthusiasm for identifying with the European spirit that continues to keep them physically distant from its own geographical borders.
Certainly, this situation does not contribute to establishing a positive image of the EU in the region better known as “Western Balkans”; on the contrary, it seems to be a significant backsliding in the enlargement process that has represented one of the priorities for the EU external action since the Treaty of Lisbon.
Following the current discussions, EU member states agreed on visa liberalisation for Kosovo’s citizens to be implemented starting from January 1st, 2024. This decision came as a consequence of the disputes over car number plates, which caused escalating tensions in the northern municipalities of Kosovo. However, a substantial step forward was made on the 30th November 2022, when the EU member states ambassadors agreed on negotiating new regulations concerning the visa-free movement of Kosovo citizens with the EU Parliament, aiming at finalising the entire process by 1st December 2023. This achievement was made possible by the clear voice raised by the Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union. European Council President’s last declaration on Monday 5th December, hints in a hopeful tone that the light at the end of the tunnel will be soon visible in this never-ending situation.
Regardless of the urgency with which European summits decide on a final solution to the visa issue, one realises objectively how the lifting of the visa regime in Kosovo is requiring much more time and legal requirements than expected. The presence of these barriers seems to diminish the opportunities that may arise from diplomatic openness and political dialogue, in this way creating a real “ghetto” where not only Kosovo people’s freedom of movement but also their attachment to and enthusiasm for the European Union fade away.
Although this problem seems to be eclipsed by the far more pressing political and economic issues in the country, visa liberalisation may represent, if nothing else, a way to bring Kosovo citizens closer to the European Union and the encounter with other cultures, and possibly move forward in the geopolitical instability of Kosovo’s national and regional context.