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EU launches talks with Kosovo on visa free regime

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(PRISTINA) - The European Union on Thursday opened talks with the authorities in Pristina aimed at allowing Kosovans to travel to the EU's passport-free Schengen zone without a visa, officials said.

"I know how important visa free travel is to the citizens of Kosovo and I am happy that we have now set the ball rolling," said Cecilia Malmstroem, the EU's home affairs commissioner.

The citizens of Kosovo, which has declared independence from Serbia in 2008, are the last in the Balkans who still need visas to travel to the Schengen zone covering 25 European countries.

Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia were granted visa-free status in December 2009, and Albania and Bosnia a year later.

Hashim Thaci, the prime minister, hailed the prospect of a change in status as a "new chapter" in Kosovo's history.

However, Kosovo is yet to receive a roadmap clarifying the conditions it needs to fulfil before its citizens are allowed to travel visa-free to the EU.

Brussels has already made clear that Kosovo is expected to make huge progress in the areas of readmission and re-integration of refugees, border management and developing a sound civil registry. Pristina must also commit itself to cracking down on corruption and organised crime.

"Whether and how soon the citizens obtain the privilege of visa-free travel will nevertheless depend entirely on the government of Kosovo's continuing efforts to implement reforms in the rule of law area and on concrete progress made on the ground," Malmstroem warned.

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognised by 85 countries, including the US and majority of the EU.

However, Serbia refuses the move and still considers the breakaway territory as its southern province.

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