Conference: Visa Regimes No More: Time To Put People First

“Visa Regimes No More: Time to Put People First” is a continuation of the collective efforts aimed at addressing the serious obstacles to the freedom of movement for people in the Western Balkans and in the Schengen area.

The conference program is organized into two panel discussions:

Panel 1: Visa Liberalization: Genuine Motivation or a Dead Letter?

Panel 2: Young People and Mobility Beyond Borders

The conference tackles the restrictions to freedom of movement of people that have been breaking family ties, inhibiting student and academic exchange, harming businesses and preventing regional cooperation. And, what actions are necessary to urgently address such obstacles so that ordinary citizens could cooperate, develop and prosper.

Conference speakers include: Dukagjin Gorani, Gerlad Knaus, Sabina Cudic, Viola Von Cramon-Taubadel, Vlora Citaku, Andjela Micanovic, Blazhen Maleski, Egzona Bokshi and Ivan Djuric.

The regional conference is part of a series organized by the Balkan Forum and members of the Civil Society Platform for Democracy and Human Rights (CSP), which bring together elected representatives and officials, civil society organizations and actors from the region and the EU, as well as youth activists from the six countries of the Western Balkans, and Members of the European Parliament.

Vlora Çitaku:  Freedom of movement is a basic fundamental human right and EU has failed to deliver

"Before I was an Ambassador to the United States, I was the Minister for European Integrations. And I remember very vividly June 14th, 2012 when we received the visa roadmap for Kosovo. I was in Brussels together with the delegation and if someone would have told me that day, that in September 2021 I would be still speaking about visa liberalization for Kosovo, I would have called it crazy. Citizens from Columbia and Venezuela to Taiwan and everyone else in between can travel to Schengen zone visa free. 1.8 million Kosovars cannot. This is, it's shameful for the European Union itself. Freedom of movement is a basic fundamental human right and, unfortunately, EU has failed to deliver." 

Viola von Cramon – Taubadel: Viola von Cramon - Taubadel: I am the biggest defender of visa liberalization for Kosovo

"Well, that’s true, I am the biggest defender of visa liberalization for Kosovo, and especially for the young generation as the Ambassador has portrayed that I mean this is absolutely unfair and we in the European Parliament, as you have mentioned Franziska, have many times supported and have given green lights to visa liberalization but of course the Council, for whatever reason and especially in that respect that as France and sometimes the Netherlands, sometimes even Sweden, I have heard, are not so much in favor. This is extremely puzzling that irritates a lot, while of course that resistance is domestically driven and it's really hard if you base your election campaign as it obviously happens in France or on the Balkans.

I think that most of the people who finally come to Kosovo, finally see the region, talk to the people, they have, let’s say much differentiated opinion and can make some progress also in the capitals.

Honestly, I am as frustrated as the Ambassador and as you Franziska. So, I would be very, let's say, realistic in what we can see and what we can hope for but obviously the majority in the French society is not let’s say sensitive enough to this important topic."  

Gerald Knaus: European interior ministers are reluctant to move Kosovo from the black list

"Yes I have worked in this issue from 2009 when we published the first letter, calling on the Commission to prepare a visa liberalization roadmap, which it was not prepared at that time, together with Otto Schilly and Julian Armato, the two former interior ministers. Since 2009 we wrote a lot of papers until 2015 and then basically the issue dropped off our agenda as much as off the agenda of I think a lot of European civil society. Why? Because it looked hopeless and if it looks hopeless, you don’t spend your time on it, I mean this is a very basic principle of human motivation. How do you move one country with what arguments from the black list to the white list? Clearly European interior ministers were ready to lift/move Albania there, were ready to move Bosnia there, were ready to move Ukraine there, were ready to move Moldova and Georgia there and are reluctant on Kosovo.

So, the question then is, for Kosovo, what can you say to the French? What do you need to tell French parliamentarians? what do you need to tell to French Minister of interior or the French journalists? Why/Where are they wrong? They are not wrong on the problem, they are wrong on where the problem lays. The problem does not lay in Kosovo, it lays in France."

Dukagjin Gorani: the truth is not being told to Kosovo public from the side of Brussels

"In its outset this whole issue was presented as technical. It was about benchmarking and about certain standards, technical standards to be met and then once they were met, we have encountered a radio silence from Brussels, which still persists. What I do not understand and I consider that to be a rather indecent to be more precise from the side of Brussels, is that this truth is not being told to Kosovo public. The truth that the visa lifting procedure is entirely conditioned by the outcome of the political process and the dialogue with Belgrade. And while this truth is not being openly articulated and openly interpreted to Kosovo actors, these two problems will persist. A dialogue will protract and prolong indefinitely and the agonizing isolation will continue."

Egzona Bokshi: (Kosovo students) need a visa to get a visa

"I got my scholarship in two days my scholarship will start and I will not be able to attend in Belgium physically, because of the visa issue (I actually need a visa to get a visa).

Other panellists said that they are frustrated, they are angry and that this whole process is shameful, but for me everything is doubled, because from the beginning you see how unequal you are to other young people in the region. If you would check all the service, all the data, the citizens of Kosova are usually the citizens most pro EU programs, more pro EU language more pro EU narratives, but then you have exactly these citizens who are not able to travel to EU.  I actually came to a point when I said, ok maybe I should just decline my scholarship, because there is a huge bureaucracy that we have to go through in order just to be there.  

Question from moderator: And will you have to decline it, or can you keep it? No, I will not, because this would mean that I gave up, and I will not, and it is funny because my scholarship it is funded, it is an Erasmus Mundus scholarship, so it is funded by the European Commission."

Samir Beharic: Freedom of movement contributes to brain circulation and reconciliation processes

"When it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina there is a visa regime that exists between Bosnia and Kosovo; And in order to apply for a visa as I did now for this very conference, I had to apply for a visa of Kosovo in Skopje. So, I had to travel to another country, to another city to the Embassy of Kosovo in Skopje, because Bosnia and Herzegovina formally speaking does not recognize Kosovo, therefore there is no Embassy of Kosovo in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  

In this case, the Embassy of Kosovo in Skopje was quite cooperative and they did issue visa on time, however I cannot compare myself to my colleagues, friends from Kosovo who really have tough time, you know not just travelling to Bosnia but also traveling exactly to the EU. For the EU I don’t need to go to any Embassy. As we have heard now, Egzona needs a visa to get a visa to study you know in Belgium which is abhorrent, it’s unacceptable, it’s immoral from the EU and at the end of the day you know it is violating the core principles of the EU, the principles of freedom of movement. And EU is in this way in this case is basically isolating the people that they need as allies.  Bringing young people together, you know to exchange, to circulate throughout the region does not only you know contribute them meeting each other, it also contributes to brain circulation that we need really to address and to recognize as something as very highly important for the region. It would contribute to the reconciliation process in the region, to the development processes in the region."

Andjela Micanovic: substantial work must be done to facilitate labor mobility within the region

"When one relates to this impact of visa liberalization that we will be able to do this short term travel to the regional countries. And why does this matter? Best stories in my life that I can tell you about can indeed be found between the pages of my passport and I am sure that most of you can agree with me here. Because every trip was not only a chance to walk different streets or to explore different cities that we were visiting but it rather had a deep and long term effect in my way of thinking and idea about people and life because travelling keeps our eyes wide open and somehow it changes us for better.

Our governments keep on promising that they will promote peace and cooperation, we’re witnessing growing tensions and living in a region divided in so many different ways. As a national of Montenegro, fortunately I have never been denied entry to any country I wished to travel to, from Europe to the Americas, to Asia, let alone to a country from my region. However, sadly, my peers -- as you can hear -- from the region, are facing these challenges.

As I was growing up I started to get to know or learn about stories of people for instance from Kosovo who got married to a person from Bosnia and Herzegovina and could not bring their families to share their joy. I use to meet young people who wish to collaborate on different projects and jointly contribute to the development of this region however the event was held in Kosovo, it was a quite long and difficult process as you can from Samir, for them to get there. And the most striking example that I would like to share with you today, was the story of one girl from Kosovo who was travelling with my sister across the Balkans through one program, however the idea was to take young people in a bus through the region and help them to get to know each other and get to know the culture of the different countries of the Western Balkan region. When she was at the Bosnian border she was denied entry, not because she did something wrong but because of her national identity.

If the Western Balkans stands to change negative trends in emigration, the substantial work must be done to facilitate labor mobility within the region. So the Western Balkan countries - while we are lagging behind the EU countries in many aspects and at the same time we wish to progress, then we need to share knowledge and experience and find a way to borrow our human capital to one another, rather than to the rest of the world."

Ivan Djuric: To establish reconciliation, societies need to meet, travel, and work together

"Regarding barriers between Serbia and Kosovo, from today we have another one. If you have seen the news, the so-called reciprocity has been established and now the license plates from Serbia are not legal in Kosovo. Which is a step back, a big step back, after ten years of this agreement of freedom of movement between Serbia and Kosovo. We haven't been able to make a significant step forward. We have been able just to take a step back. If you remember, for years we speak about possible plane line [flights] between Belgrade and Prishtina, opening new border crossings. But what have the two governments, the two countries, managed to do in the last ten years, even not to fulfill one of the first agreements. In order to have a societal reconciliation, not the one which two Prime Ministers or Presidents will sign, but that two societies establish connections and reconciliation, they need to meet, they need to travel, they need to work together. This is something that the politics should provide basis for. I am afraid instead, they are doing completely the opposite." 

Blazhen Maleski: Bureaucratic procedures for travelling send the wrong message to young people

"Although RYCO is giving the necessary tools to organize such gatherings of young people, it is very difficult when you have visas in place, and the administration barrier for organizing such events is huge. Especially when you count in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina if you have organizations who have gotten money from RYCO to organize such events. Even the initiative to have a regional cooperation office for youth in the Balkans was a huge step, and a political step by all governments from the Western Balkan six in order to bring young people closer together. And I think it's a little bit kind of a stupid situation when you have in a sense the political will to finance and to establish such an organization but on the other hand, make it as difficult as possible for young people to actually meet in the sense of having visas and bureaucratic stuff that you have to go to if you want to meet people from, if you are from Kosovo and want to meet people from Bosnia, and vice-versa. We have to lift such restrictions for young people, because, in essence, you are sending a wrong message to young people. Not only because it's extremely difficult to get a visa, but because it creates this narrative that you actually shouldn't go, that you are not welcome. And this is something I think the government should think about. I don't think that the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina wants to say you are not welcome to Kosovo youngsters."