4 May. — The European Commission proposed the introduction of a visa-free regime between Kosovo and the EU. The previous day, the UEFA Congress took the difficult and controversial decision to accept the Kosovo Football Federation as a member. With this, the unrecognised republic, considered by Serbia as its own autonomous region, moved even closer to the status of a de facto full-fledged state. It is true that opportunities remain for opponents of these decisions to challenge them. However, for some the case of Kosovo is a reason for concern while for others it is an example to follow.
The European Union opened the question of visa liberalisation for Kosovo in 2012. The progress made by authorities of the unrecognised republic since then towards fulfilling the preliminary conditions set by Brussels has been regularly noted. The assessment mission’s fourth and latest progress report observed that Pristina fulfilled all but two requirements and concluded that it was time to review the visa policy.
In addition, the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Union and Kosovo entered into force on 1 April. It also affirmed readiness to simplify border-crossing rules for Kosovars.
Kosovo was aiming for membership in the UEFA since the moment it gained independence in 2008 and membership is part of the campaign for receiving recognition through participation in sports competitions. However, attempts to gain access to international tournaments for clubs and national teams had not been successful for a long time. This is why the current decision is being called “historic” even though it was achieved with great difficulty and is legally dubious.
Kosovo’s application was supported by 28 European football federations and opposed by 24. But the decision contradicts article 5 of the UEFA Statutes, which states that only countries recognised by the UN recognised can join.
And the legal contradictions do not stop with this. Both events are very painful for various countries with unresolved territorial disputes. “UEFA has opened Pandora’s box,” reacted the president of the Football Association of Serbia, Tomislav Karadžić, to one of them, not yet aware of the European Commission proposal.
Both decisions were taken despite the fact that five EU countries (Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia) do not recognise Kosovo’s statehood and voted against Kosovo’s application at the UEFA Congress. Members of the Eastern Partnership (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova) were in solidarity with them, as they have their own territorial problems.
In particular, the Kosovo case is being regarded as an example for Crimea to follow, which Ukraine cannot ignore. Georgia, according to the head of the country’s football federation, Levan Kobiashvili, opposed Kosovo’s joining “due to foreign policy concerns”. An unnamed source of EUObserver in Spain informed the publication that the country will not let in people with Kosovo passports.
Predictably, Serbian and Albanian experts assess the situation differently. Serbs speak of double standards. Columnist Dragan Todorović from the Belgrade paper Politika thinks that the last decision signifies “legal and political violation” against international law. The director of the Belgrade Centre for Strategic Alternatives, Dušan Proroković sees injustice in the fact that the process of abolishing visas for Kosovo proceeded more easily than it did for Serbia.
On the contrary, Kosovar and Albanian officials and the opposition were happy about the news. In Kosovo, it is expected that the visa-free regime will be implemented in as few as three or four months. Meanwhile, some supposed that the decision is tied not with the merits of the unrecognised republic but with geopolitical calculations instead. Agron Bajrami, the chief editor of the influential Kosovo paper Koha Ditore suggested in comments to the portal Kosovo 2.0 that the liberalisation of the visa regime was part of a big EU-Turkey deal on refugees.
The fact remains, however, that neither of these historical decisions are final. The results of the voting in UEFA may be challenged at FIFA, and the proposal regarding visas will have to garner sufficient support among the EU country members in the Council of the EU and in European Parliament.