Visas, please.

Photographer: ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Hey, Europe, Don't Turn Little Kosovo Into a Big Problem

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
Read More.
a | A

Officials in Brussels may this week recommend that Ukrainians and Georgians should be able to travel to the European Union without visas, deploying one of the bloc's more powerful tools for making friends and influencing neighbors.

Nothing of the kind, however, is expected for Kosovo. Why?

This perhaps sounds like small beer: Kosovo's a tiny place, and visaless travel means a right to visit for three months, not to live or work. But the decision will speak to whether -- amid various strains on cohesion from the euro to refugees and concerns over jihadists -- the EU can still pursue its original purpose of using integration to stabilize the continent.

On one level it's surprising that the EU is considering more liberal travel rules for anyone, given the tide of isolationist, anti-immigrant feeling that's washing over Europe right now. It suggests that, for once, the bloc is thinking strategically about its interests.

Visa-free travel matters for easing cross-border trade and investment. Turkish businessmen, for example, have complained for years about their struggle to meet clients and even visit their own subsidiaries in the EU, because although Turkey has had a customs union with the bloc since 1996, Turks still had to line up for visas to visit.

The ability to travel freely also allows people from corrupt, dysfunctional countries to experience, or at least witness, the benefits of democracy and the rule of law. It's a way of letting neighbors know they aren't excluded from the European club, but can hope to integrate and prosper if they go on cleaning up and strengthening their democratic institutions.

The hope of European integration is what has made it possible to begin reconciling Serbia and its former province at all, since Kosovo seceded unilaterally in 2008. Cooperation to defuse future conflict is precisely what the EU was created for. Kosovo has been held to a different standard from the start. When it comes to membership, that was perhaps inevitable: Five of the 28 EU nations don't recognize Kosovo's statehood, so until that's resolved it can't become a member. Meanwhile, the European Commission on Monday opened the first two chapters of Serbia's membership negotiation, including one on normalizing its relations with Kosovo.

Kosovo needs to achieve visa-free travel to keep its hope of EU integration alive. Yet it was given almost twice as many benchmarks as its neighbors to meet, for the same requirements. By now Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia have secured visa-free travel, leaving Kosovo in unhappy isolation, at the heart of a region the EU considers to be both strategic and volatile. Why is that smart?

As Kosovo's Minister for European Integration Bekim Collaku put it to me:

Prolonging this situation further will have very serious consequences, not only in making people less optimistic about their European future, but also in pushing them to seek other alternatives to this isolation.

Those alternatives, he said, primarily involve illegal migration to the EU, especially for the young who are increasingly resentful towards Europe.

The ostensible problem with Kosovo's bid is a continuing shortfall in efforts to improve the rule of law and crack down on organized crime and corruption. Those criticisms are well earned. But take a look at the map of nations to which the EU has given, or is about to give, the benefit of visa free travel, having signed off on their rule of law, corruption and organized crime requirements:

Source: European Commission

Moldova: One of the country's most powerful politicians was detained in October, as part of an investigation into a bank fraud in which as much as 10% of the nation's GDP disappeared. It is not less corrupt than Kosovo.

Ukraine: Kosovo's prosecutors and courts can be no less independent or competent than Ukraine's, especially after receiving the EU's largest ever rule of law assistance mission.

Colombia and Albania: Does Kosovo really have a bigger organized crime problem? More likely the EU recognizes that such deep challenges will be works in progress for years to come.

Nor is poverty the disqualifying factor. Kosovars are richer than Moldovans or Ukrainians. And they are surely less threatening, with a population of 1.8 million to Ukraine's 45 million:

Maybe the fear is that Kosovars are at greater risk of overstaying their three-month visaless limit and disappear into the black economy; or that Islamic State fighters will slip in among them -- 232 people from Kosovo, a mainly Muslim nation, are believed to have gone to fight in Syria. That's a higher per-capita figure than any EU country. These are genuine risks, but in both cases, people determined to emigrate or infiltrate do so already. If anything, visaless (though passport-controlled) travel might reduce illegal migration.

"This is a very dangerous dynamic," said Gerald Knaus, director of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank. "It offers Kosovo no perspective. Isolated, dependent on imports, with the lowest employment rate for women in Europe - what is its future?"

The EU made the decision to recognize Kosovo's secession from Serbia, right or wrong. Now it needs to make sure the two get integrated with the EU together.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net