The EU isn’t exactly known for shrewd foreign policy, but it sure knows how to hit the pressure points in Kosovo.

On Sept. 6, three days after Belgrade and Pristina reached a trade agreement that ended a two-month embargo of Serbian goods by Kosovo that led to alarming border hostilities, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy held a press conference with Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga in Brussels. He praised the agreement, asked for further dialogue between the capitals, and encouraged Jahjaga to get tougher on corruption and organized crime to improve Kosovo’s EU prospects.

Van Rompuy’s message to Kosovo was clear enough: If you want coveted EU membership, play nice with Serbia and clean up your act at home.

Then Van Rompuy slyly played trump.

“Let me first reiterate that all 27 member states are committed to the European perspective of the Western Balkans as a whole,” he said before focusing on Kosovo. “It is my sincere hope that there can be good progress soon, for example on the start of the visa dialogue.”

That last sentence might sound inconsequential, but it touches on what is arguably the most important public policy issue in Kosovo today, as well as Brussels’ best bargaining chip for encouraging reform in the young country: visa liberalization. The so-called “visa dialogue” is Brussels’ first step in granting non-EU nations visa-free travel in the 27-member union. For EU hopefuls like Kosovo – which is years away from joining – visa liberalization is an early incentive to pursue the union’s strict, often politically painful reforms for membership. Its implications to aspirants and their citizens are both practical – i.e. ease of travel, work and study abroad – and political – i.e. the promise of EU accession and the accompanying international legitimacy, aid and foreign investment.

In effect, then, visa liberalization is a foreign policy tool – a linchpin in the EU’s carrot-and-stick approach to expansion that aims to develop, secure and (eventually) integrate the countries along its borders while simultaneously growing the union. (The southern European debt crises are testing the cost-benefit balance of expansion, but I’m betting the EU will weather the storm.) As EU expert Mark Leonard writes in his book, Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century:

The pot of gold of [EU] membership is powerful enough to motivate countries to go through the painful processes of reform that they need in order to be prosperous and free. And once they are prosperous and free they become an asset to the European Union rather than a burden.

Brussels has dangled visa liberalization before Kosovo for years, and many locals thought the process would begin this summer. But Kosovo remains the only Balkan nation that hasn’t at least been offered a “dialogue.” This effectively means that 1.8 million Kosovars cannot travel in much of Europe because the visa application process is extremely time-consuming and expensive.

I’ve visited Kosovo every year since 2009, and it’s difficult to exaggerate how important the visa liberalization issue has become. To many Kosovars, their exclusion is an outrage, especially when the EU has offered “dialogue” to Moldova, Ukraine and Turkey, none of which are joining the union any time soon. The anger is understandable, trapped as many Kosovars are in a fledgling country of 45 percent unemployment, abysmal health care, and endemic corruption more than a decade after the war and three years since Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence.

Many have criticized Brussels’ approach: “Isolation Confirmed: How the EU is Undermining its Interests in Kosovo,” read the title of a 2010 European Stability Initiative (ESI) report on the EU’s “discriminatory” visa policy. The ESI think tank has a point, but Kosovo remains a basket case on corruption, organized crime and other areas. Given the gravity of visa liberalization in Kosovo, it is Brussels’ best incentive to encourage leadership to take action – to prepare Kosovo for EU membership, yes, but also to improve the lives of Kosovars.

As TOL Managing Editor Barbara Frye noted in a recent blog on Macedonia’s stalled EU path, Brussels has considerably more leverage over EU aspirants than EU members. Van Rompuy’s Sept. 6 remark is a reminder that in Kosovo, Brussels is prepared to use it.

Photo by David Bailey, from flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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