Text by Christian Ernhede & photography by Bruno Mariani
Seven years after Kosovo's declaration of independence, Kosovo is still facing substantial obstacles on the path to regularising its relationship with the EU. Five EU countries (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain) are yet to recognise Kosovo, but the new government formed in December 2014 is hopeful that EU relations will move forward, and that they will one day become full members of the European Union.
Understandably, EU membership is an alluring concept for Kosovo, which is otherwise set for growth, with one of the youngest populations in Europe, low wages, and attractive tax rates. Despite the corruption and political uncertainty that still pose significant barriers for further growth, the Kosovo economy has according to the World Bank seen an average growth of 4.5% between 2008-2012.
Skender Hyseni, Kosovo's Minister of Interior Affairs during our discussion in Brussels.
As such, Kosovo is one of the few European economies that showed positive growth during the financial crisis. But according to Kosovo's Minister of Interior Affairs, Skender Hyseni, continued growth is the only option: “stagnation breeds frustration which is very dangerous in our region.”
Closer ties with the EU is integrally linked to opening up of its borders, and while Kosovo is the only country west of Ukraine whose citizens cannot travel to the EU Schengen area without a visa, the recent spike in illegal immigration from Kosovo to the Schengen area is further complicating relations. Hyseni is categorical however in his dismissal of the current situation: “It is profoundly unjust to keep Kosovo outside the visa-free zone.”
Corruption is another substantial barrier for further integration with the EU, and for continued economic growth. According to Hyseni, corruption affects the highest levels of governance in Kosovo and he says that “we need to control corruption to prevent it from damaging the backbone of the country.” Hyseni states however, that corruption in Kosovo is not at an alarming level and that in the region, Kosovo is not an exception: “corruption is a serious issue that needs to be tackled, but our neighbours are worse.” However, according Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2013, only Albania received a worse score. But Hyseni is again optimistic, and promises that we can expect to see real results under the new government within a year. He also dismisses the alleged corruption at EULEX as unsubstantiated and that “it is for the European Commission to verify allegations”. Nonetheless, he stresses that corruption at EULEX do not minimise the importance of EULEX's presence. “Kosovo is in the making, and we take any advice we can get.”
The next major step for normalising Kosovo-EU relations is the Stability and Association Agreement, which is set to be signed by June this year. Although the five EU countries that have not yet recognised Kosovo are unlikely to block the agreement according to a Feasibility Study by the European Commission, they may prove to be obstacles for further cooperation on visa requirements and full EU membership. Hyseni however believes that Kosovo has done what it can to convince the five EU countries that have not yet recognised Kosovo to do so, but admits that the EU institutions could do more to advance universal recognition of Kosovo.