With the start of the new year, citizens of Kosovo can travel without visas into the Schengen Area.
On January 1, the European Union’s visa-free programme went into effect in the country, enabling Kosovars to visit the Schengen Area of 27 European nations that have officially abolished passports and many other types of border control for up to 90 days in any 180-day period.
This is seen as another step toward Kosovo’s full official recognition and its improving standing as it aims to join the EU.
Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Policy and Security, called it a “historic decision” on X and noted that all the Western Balkans nations are now connected to the Schengen visa-free zone.
A historic decision by the EU enters into force. Kosovo’s citizens can as of today travel to the EU visa-free.
This brings significant benefits to both Kosovo & the EU.
The entire Western Balkans are now connected to the Schengen area through visa liberalisation#EUIntegration
— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) January 1, 2024
Kosovo was the last of the six Western Balkan countries granted visa-free travel.
Despite Kosovo meeting the criteria for the visa-free regime in 2018, according to the European Commission several countries including France, the Netherlands and Spain blocked it from joining, citing fears of mass migration.
Now, the EC believes Kosovo has made sufficient efforts since to tighten border controls in the country and implement other reforms regarding migration and security policy.
The countries initially against Kosovo joining have now agreed with the EC.
Despite the improvements, there have been tensions in the north of Kosovo in recent months between local ethnic Serbs and police.
The Pristina Government ran a vigorous campaign in the two months before the visa-free change, warning citizens against using it to look for work in EU States over concerns that would worsen the labour shortage already being felt in the country.
As of today 🇽🇰 travels visa free, joining neighboring countries that have long enjoyed this right. Our citizens now have equal standing to visit family or pursue educational, cultural & business opportunities one short flight away—one step out of isolation, one step closer to 🇪🇺. pic.twitter.com/Ipgg2WK8Tr
— Albin Kurti (@albinkurti) January 1, 2024
Leading the campaign, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti travelled the country outlining the advantages of the visa-requirement change.
“This day is important. A great injustice is being removed and a great right is being gained,” he said.
Kurti urged Kosovars “to respect the criteria, and wherever we travel, let’s not forget that our home is Kosovo”.
As Besnik Bislimi, Kosovo’s head of European integration, pointed out, the EU will take action if it is deemed the new agreement is being taken advantage of.
Vjollca Cavolli, CEO of STIKK, the association representing Kosovo’s fast-growing ICT sector, told the BNE news portal that ICT workers are highly sought after at home and can earn good salaries, also pointing out the cost of living in Kosovo is lower than Western-Europe.
“It’s better to be at home with your family and friends working remotely and earning the same amount you would in Germany or the EU. Here you can live [very well],” he said.
Cavolli did acknowledge that issues such as education and healthcare systems were generally better developed abroad.
In celebration of the visa-rules agreement, the Kosovo Government had held a lottery to award visits to European locations and 50 winners were ready for take-off at Pristina International Airport earlier on January 2, where Kurti greeted them.
As well as the lottery winners, hundreds of other Kosovars took the chance right away to enter the EU visa-free.
Alongside the EU move, Serbia announced that drivers with Kosovo licence plates could now enter Serbian territory, ending a contentious years-long dispute.
On its official website, though, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Serbian Government indicated that admitting vehicles bearing Republic of Kosovo licence plates into the Republic of Serbia did not imply official acknowledgment of Kosovo’s independence.