“Soft” power of isolation

Kosovo has been in a visa liberalisation dialogue with the EU for nearly five years now, and has been working towards this goal for much longer than that. Its neighbours in the region have all but forgotten what they went through over six years ago, by now so used to this basic freedom. Is Kosovo so different from its neighbours? High-level European Commission officials said a year and a half ago that Kosovo is to ‘walk the last mile’ toward visa-free status. One is left to wonder, how long is that last mile?

By Hashim Thaci

Kosovo has been in a visa liberalisation dialogue with the EU for nearly five years now, and has been working towards this goal for much longer than that. Its neighbours in the region have all but forgotten what they went through over six years ago, by now so used to this basic freedom. Is Kosovo so different from its neighbours? High-level European Commission officials said a year and a half ago that Kosovo is to ‘walk the last mile’ toward visa-free status. One is left to wonder, how long is that last mile?

We cannot but observe the special treatment of Kosovo compared to its neighbours when it comes to the visa liberalisation process. As the rest of the Western Balkan countries received a Roadmap in 2008, Kosovo had to wait until 2012 to receive the same. While the countries of the region were granted visa-free travel to the Schengen zone in 2009 and 2010, Kosovo’s citizens are still waiting for the same opportunity. While the countries of the region were given roadmaps with less than 50 requirements, Kosovo’s roadmap included 95 requirements! What’s more, the criteria for Kosovo included several areas not directly related to visa policy and that have not been asked of any of the other countries of the region and wider.

Kosovo has now come to the end of the roadmap. We have fulfilled all of the technical criteria set out in the roadmap. In May this year, the European Commission finally recommended to the Council and the European Parliament to remove the visa requirement for Kosovars. The recommendation showcased all the achievements that Kosovo has made in completing the technical requirements. The Commission mentioned two out of the 95 requirements in the roadmap where more needs to be done. These two areas include ratification of the demarcation of the border with Montenegro and strengthening the track record in fighting organised crime and corruption. Kosovo institutions have not spared any energy in moving ahead in these two areas. The latter is in the hands of the independent judicial institutions, a sector in which the EU still maintains strong executive powers. The Kosovo Government has taken the necessary steps to increase the coordination and independence of these institutions. Any further intervention would breach the independent relationship between these two branches of government. 

The roadmap also asks Kosovo to “endeavour to complete […]the delineation of the border with Montenegro”. It should be clear to even distant observers that there has been an immense effort on the part of the government to complete this process. The agreement has been signed and approved by the government. However, the ratification of the agreement is facing major political opposition. It is not certain that this issue cannot be solved in time; however, the relevant question now is if visa liberalisation for all the citizens of one country should be held hostage to this issue (while the citizens of the other countries sharing borders with Kosovo are already enjoying visa-free travel for some time). If demarcation of borders holds that much relevance, how come it was never asked of any of the other countries in the region? Which borders are being demarcated by Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina? EU officials would say that EU learns from the mistakes done in the past. If so, one wonders which borders are being demarcated by Georgia and Ukraine, both of which are about to get the right of visa-free travel from EU in the next few weeks to come. Nevertheless, I am certain that demarcation with Montenegro will eventually be completed, but pushing us to do it within unrealistic deadlines can harm rather than help.

Having been left behind its own region, Kosovo now finds itself grouped with countries further away from Europe without a clear accession perspective. The official line is that each country is assessed according to its own merit in fulfilling its specific criteria. However, the reality is that Kosovo’s progress is hostage of the lack of unity and political will within EU.

Given the government’s enormous efforts in the past year at a time when some oppositional voices have chosen violent means to try to undermine our work, Kosovo needs the EU to step up its engagement and deliver what we have rightfully earned. EU Member States should remove Kosovo from the Schengen black list and allow Kosovo citizens to visit their friends and families in Europe without the costly and time-consuming process of applying for a visa. This would be mutually beneficial as it is the best way to ensure sustained commitment to on-going reforms in Kosovo and the repatriation of illegal migrants from the EU.

 We are asking the EU not to move the goal post once again for Kosovo. We are asking them to think of the Western Balkans as one region, with a clear accession perspective, where all should be treated equally. We are asking the EU to judge Kosovo’s reform efforts fairly, without political considerations. We are asking the EU to open its arms to our citizens; a people that is the most willing to receive its embrace in the region.

The visa liberalisation process has been good for Kosovo; it is a shining example of soft power employed to incentivize reforms.However, delaying the reward when it has been rightfully earned has the opposite effect. It risks backsliding or worse. Any further delay in removing Kosovo from the black list exploits Kosovo’s unique situation. It would mean a shift from the carrot to the stick. It would mean using the soft power of isolation to coerce reforms. The problem is that isolation is not soft. The EU is better than that.