Kosovo and Serbia take a small but important step forwards

Kosovo and Serbia remain far from agreeing a long-term deal that would see Belgrade recognise Prishtina’s independence, but a seemingly minor agreement on car license plates is a welcome step forward.

Since January 1, Kosovars have been able to visit the European Union visa-free. Kosovo was the only remaining country in the Western Balkans whose citizens still required visas to enter the bloc.  

The European Commission confirmed Kosovo met the requirements to secure visa-free travel to the EU in 2018, but the European Council had blocked the approval process over the concerns of some member states. 

Five EU countries—Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia, and Romania—do not recognise Kosovo’s independence. France and the Netherlands meanwhile had expressed concerns about migration.

Between 2018 and 2021, 268,846 Kosovans applied for EU visas—the average cost of which is 165 euros—but only 20,040 were granted.   

Spain had been the last holdout in agreeing to the new rules, but on January 6 Kosovo’s deputy prime minister, Besnik Bislimi, welcomed a decision by Madrid to recognise Kosovar passports. A document published the previous day on the website of the European Commission’s Department for Migration and Home Affairs said that from January 1, Spain recognises ordinary passports issued by Kosovo. 

However, the document also made it clear that, “This does not imply in any form formal recognition of Kosovo as an independent state”. 

The new rules allow citizens of Kosovo to travel visa-free within the 27-country Schengen zone for up to 90 days within any 180-day period. The new regulations are intended for tourism and personal travel and do not include permission to work. 

A welcome step forward 

There was also a welcome development last week that saw Kosovo and Serbia defuse a dispute over the recognition of each other’s car license plates, a move that has been hailed as a welcome step forward after years of tension between Belgrade and Prishtina that has at times escalated into violence in areas of Kosovo populated by Serbs. 

On January 5, Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, said that his country would allow vehicles registered in Serbia to enter, following a similar move by Belgrade last month. 

Until now, vehicles from either Kosovo or Serbia could cross the border only if they placed stickers on their license plates to hide the respective state symbols. The deal marks the formal implementation of an agreement first signed between the two countries in 2011. 

“Respecting each other’s sovereignty is the key to making people’s lives easier instead of pretexts for aggression,” said Kurti, who added, “We will now allow Serbian license plates to enter Kosovo without stickers, just as Kosovo plates can freely enter Serbia.” 

Serb authorities later made it clear that recognition of Kosovo license plates is not recognition of the country’s independence. Kosovo declared independence in 2008 but Serbia continues to claim sovereignty over its former province. 

The long road to a formal recognition deal 

While the license plate issue initially appears minor, it has led to violent clashes over the past three years in north Kosovo—populated primarily by Serbs who refuse to recognise the administration in Prishtina.  

In 2021, Serb protesters blocked all roads in and out of north Kosovo in a stand-off ended only by the deployment of KFOR forces, the NATO-led international peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. 

The European Union welcomed the agreement by Kosovo and Serbia to formally recognise each other’s vehicle license plates and fully abolish the sticker regime. 

“This decision is a positive step in the implementation of the Agreement on the Path to Normalisation, as well as past Dialogue commitments related to Freedom of Movement,” the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell said in a statement. 

Borrell said the decision demonstrates that progress towards normalisation of relations is possible. 

“This also constitutes a step in the right direction towards better regional and European integration of the Western Balkans, which ultimately benefits the citizens of the region,” he said. 

But the road to a definitive deal between the two countries remains long.  

Talks are currently stalled over Kurti’s objections to the creation of a Community of Serb Municipalities in north Kosovo, a key part of any long-term deal that might eventually normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo   

Kosovo and Serbia had previously agreed to form a Community of Serb Municipalities as part of the 2013 Brussels Agreement to allow Kosovo’s Serb minority to collectively develop policy regarding their economic development, education, health, and urban and rural planning. Kosovo, however, has not yet implemented that part of the 2013 agreement, with Kurti making frequent statements questioning its constitutionality.

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