The European Commission proposed Wednesday to grant citizens of Kosovo visa-free access to the European Union, even though five of the bloc's member states have yet to recognize the independence of the former Serbian breakaway province.
The EU should nevertheless be able to lift visa requirements for Kosovo nationals within "two or two-and-a-half months," EU Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos predicted, saying that Kosovo authorities had achieved "far-reaching and difficult reforms."
Only a majority of EU member states is needed to lift visa requirements. It was not immediately clear how the refusal of Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain to recognize Kosovo may affect the implementation of its visa-free regime.
But Interior Minister Skender Hyseni spoke of a "great day" for Kosovo and its people.
"It is a day of joy and pleasure and happiness for all of them, because finally, apart from feeling European, they are also in technical terms European," he said during a visit to Brussels.
Hyseni argued that there is a "very basic human right of Kosovars to move freely throughout Europe."
The EU has pursued closer ties with Kosovo partially as a reward for its progress in normalizing relations with Serbia. The two sides had fought a brief war in 1999.
Visa-free travel will help in "facilitating people-to-people contacts and strengthening business, social and cultural ties between the EU and Kosovo," Avramopoulos said.
But before it can take effect, Kosovo has been asked to ratify a border agreement with Montenegro and strengthen its track record in fighting organized crime and corruption.
"You may rest assured that we will continue along the same path of meeting other [EU] expectations," Hyseni said, adding that his country aspires to ultimately join the bloc.
A majority of EU governments and the European Parliament will have to approve the visa liberalization proposal before it comes into effect.
The move could face resistance also because Europe's surge in migration may make some EU capitals wary of granting more people unfettered access to their bloc.
Almost 67,000 people from Kosovo came to the EU last year to apply for asylum, according to the statistics agency Eurostat - even though they are usually considered to be economic migrants and are unlikely to be granted asylum.
"Let me be clear - visa liberalization does not mean uncontrolled entry into the EU," Avramopoulos said.
Only Kosovo nationals with biometric passports would have the right to travel without a visa to EU countries - except Britain and Ireland - and the Schengen countries of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland for up to 90 days.
Hyseni said there are only 4,000 to 6,000 people in Kosovo who have biometric passports.
The visa-free right would cover visits for business, tourist and family purposes, but would not grant the right to work.
Kosovo and the EU first launched a visa liberalization dialogue in 2012. The EU has used the removal of visa requirements as an incentive to encourage reforms in several of its eastern neighbours.
Avramopoulos said he will visit Kosovo on Thursday to "share this moment" with its citizens.
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