Restrictive EU Visa Policy Risks Further Western Balkan Disillusionment

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To impose a more restrictive visa regime on the Western Balkans in order to tackle migration will only inflict further damage to the enlargement process.

Amid yet another upsurge in migration flows along the Balkan route, a more restrictive visa policy is being debated on the level of the European Union. However, some of the measures under consideration may have damaging effects on the European aspirations of the Western Balkan states.

The current Czech Presidency of the EU Council is playing an ambiguous role, reflecting a broader mismatch between the EU‘s migration policy and its enlargement policy. Contrary to its declaratory support for enlargement to the Western Balkans and the recent lobbying for visa liberalisation for citizens of Kosovo, Prague has threatened some of the states in the region with the suspension of their visa-free regimes.

Such a measure would be a dangerous step that would only deepen the mutual frustration in the relations between the EU and the WB6, as it would put the already fading credibility of the enlargement process in question. The EU aspirations of the Western Balkans could thus easily fall hostage to another migration crisis.

EU issues warning to the region

Since early summer, the Balkan migration route has come back to life with hundreds of attempted crossings daily. As the number of migrants arriving along the route rises, migration is regaining its volatile political relevance in the member states on the route as well as on the EU level.

The Czech government currently needs to respond to the issue on multiple fronts. Firstly, Czech territory has become an active part of the route as migrants try to bypass the Austrian borders. Meanwhile, Czechia holds the rotating Presidency of the EU Council, in which migration has been a volatile political issue and Czech officials now moderate the debate.

In mid-October, European media reported that Prague had put on the table a tough position towards the Western Balkan states whose territories are used by migrants as entry points. An unofficial memo, reportedly authored by the Czech EU Presidency, called specifically for Serbia and Albania to tighten their visa policies towards third countries from which many of the migrants originate.

Czech Interior Minister Vít Rakušan, who is responsible for migration policy in Czechia and currently also within the Council of the EU, used similar language following the meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council. His position was in line with that of the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, and several EU capitals calling for a more restrictive response to the migration crisis.

The clear signal from the Czech Presidency was immediately followed by testy political reactions in both Serbia and Albania.

Does the Czech Presidency truly side with the Western Balkans?

Exerting such strong political pressure on the Western Balkans states may seem logical in the context of the escalating migration crisis. However, it comes as a surprise in light of the enlargement policy and particularly when considering the previously declared commitment of the Czech EU Presidency towards supporting the EU integration of the Western Balkans.

Prague repeatedly claimed the Western Balkans and the revival of its European perspective as one of its top political priorities for the Czech EU Presidency. However, the region as such and the whole politics of enlargement were overshadowed by the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the European aspirations of the latter.

While Czech officials are currently in a unique position to set the political agenda on the EU level and influence the enlargement debate, they have invested almost all their political capital towards the support of Ukraine and the response to the ensuing energy crisis. In fact, the allegedly prioritised Western Balkans disappeared from the agenda during the first half of the Czech Presidency.

Contrary to the promises made by the Czech government in the past, the EU-Western Balkans summit will not take place during the Czech Presidency. The last top-level meetings of such kind, held in Bled and Paris during the previous Slovene and French presidencies, failed to yield any breakthrough in the enlargement process; instead, they only deepened the frustration among Western Balkan leaders.

The recent summit of the newly established European Political Community, organised by the Czech presidency in Prague in October, did not send any positive message to the Western Balkans either. It was clear from the very onset that the institutionally weak platform introduced by French President Emmanuel Macron is only a complementary tool to the enlargement policy and as such it will not move the Western Balkans forward on its path to the EU.

By resigning in its ambition to organise a full-scale EU-WB summit, the Czech Presidency has missed a chance to provide enlargement with a desperately needed boost after a long period of mutual disillusionment.

The Kosovo visa paradox

In the atmosphere of a general lack of political interest in the Western Balkans, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been the only political actor stressing the need to revive the process while also actually putting some effort into it. Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský and his deputy ministers made several visits to the region and held bilateral meetings with their counterparts.

Most notably, Lipavský traveled to Kosovo in late September to meet president Vjosa Osmani and PM Albin Kurti with a message of strong Czech support for Kosovo‘s EU integration. The visit was billed as one with a single major goal: to assure Pristina that the Czech Presidency will work at the EU level to unblock the visa liberalisation process for Kosovo citizens.

The notorious ‘visa affair’ has blocked Kosovo’s European path and contaminated the whole conditionality of the enlargement policy for years. In 2018, the Commission concluded that Kosovo had met the criteria set for lifting visas. Yet since then, the member states have failed to reach the political agreement necessary for a unanimous decision in the European Council.

Granting Kosovo a visa-free regime would be a remarkable political achievement for the Czech Presidency and as such it may serve as an important booster for the credibility of the enlargement process. However, the current atmosphere within the EU indicates that a political agreement can hardly be expected on the European level. Shortly after Lipavský’s enthusiastic visit to Kosovo, additional conditions for visa liberalisation were put on the table by some EU members, according to media reports.

The discord between the agendas set by the Czech foreign and interior ministers is characteristic of the dilemma currently present in the whole EU approach towards the region. On one side, the pro-enlargement EU capitals call for lifting barriers in the Western Balkans: earlier this week, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock praised the decision on freedom of movement within the region, agreed by regional leaders in Berlin, openly appealing to EU partners to deliver visa liberalisation for Kosovo.

Meanwhile, a politically vocal pool of actors looking at the region primarily through the migration lens is now regaining its power. Even Baerbock’s colleague in the German government, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, rather aligns with the migration perspective. The division follows the logic of the mismatch between the agendas of those responsible for the EU’s internal affairs and those promoting its external interests.

However, prioritising restrictive migration policy over the enlargement perspective on the European political level might further erode the credibility of the Western Balkans’ European path.

Potential damage and how to avoid it

The signals sent to Albania and Serbia by the Czech Presidency only point to the suspension of the visa-free regime as a last resort solution. On the other hand, even the language used might have destructive consequences for the dynamics of the Western Balkans EU integration process and its credibility within the region.

Since the start of the Russian war against Ukraine, the Western Balkan leaders and societies might have felt a legitimate frustration that their path to Europe was put on hold as the EU has been busy responding to the crisis in the East.

For the process to regain credibility it is not only necessary that Western Balkan states demonstrate a firm pro-reform commitment but also that a clear signal is sent from the EU that the door is still open. The governments in the region should definitely work hard on fulfilling the criteria set by the EU, including the harmonisation of visa policies.

However, suspending the visa-free regime would make citizens across the region feel that they are being put on the backburner once more, this time because of the migration crisis. Such a message might seriously undermine the remaining trust that the Western Balkan states still have in their European perspective.

With two months left till the end of its term, it is not probable that the Czech EU Presidency will leave any significant footprint on the Western Balkans’ EU integration process. However, Czech officials should at least coordinate their activities on the EU level and cautiously consider any signals that they send to the region.

Most importantly, from the position of a self-proclaimed advocate of the region’s European aspirations, Czech officials should restrain from statements and actions that could further deepen the disillusionment in the Western Balkans.

Source Balkan Insight