Kosovo is the last southeastern European country to sign the EU Association Agreement. But the country still has a long road to EU membership.
"To us, this is a historic moment, a historic step. Kosovo has begun an irreversible journey towards EU membership," asserted Kosovo's minister for EU integration, Bekim Collaku, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
Together with the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Isa Mustafa, he will sign the EU Stabilization and Association Agreement on in Strasbourg on Tuesday. The goal of the agreement is to create required conditions before accession talks with the EU are initiated. In doing so, Kosovo commits itself to implementing the necessary reforms, while the EU assumes responsibility for providing the country with additional support.
Kosovo's government is aware of the fact that this first step is being taken despite many challenges, like the recent blockades and violence in Kosovar parliament, where the opposition repeatedly set off tear gas. They were protesting against an agreement mediated by the EU about autonomy rights for the Serbian minority and the treaty that has finally fixed the border between Kosovo and Montenegro.
Ever since the Kosovo War in 1999 – and especially since the country's declaration of independence in 2008 – the country has adopted several laws that adhere to EU standards. "Kosovo has very modern laws. The problem is enforcing them, because only a constitutional state and a sound judicial infrastructure will attract foreign investors. And foreign investments are needed," said the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in Kosovo, Safet Gerxhaliu, in an interview with DW.
Only poverty is plentiful
Kosovo has often been called Europe's poorhouse. According to the World Bank, the average per capita income in 2014 was $2863.47 (around 2,600 euros) per year. The official unemployment rate remains high, at 35 percent. The transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy was made by privatizing many state-owned assets. However, liberalization has been fraught with irregularities and corruption. Last year, Kosovo's economy grew by around three percent.
Despite progress made since independence, Kosovo's economy is still weak. More than 90 percent of goods in Kosovo are imported from foreign countries. About 18 percent of the population is said to be suffering from severe poverty, meaning that people must make ends meet with less than a dollar a day. And around 15 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) is maintained by payments transferred from the diaspora. Bureaucracy is too cumbersome and is still rooted in central planning. Kosovo also faces the challenge of tackling corruption and organized crime, and it is suspected that high-ranking politicians are involved.
At the moment, Kosovo does not enjoy the full support of the EU. Its declaration of independence has been recognized by 111 countries to date; among them are 23 EU members. And although they support the Association Agreement with Kosovo, Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Greece and Romania refuse to recognize the country's independence. Relations with Serbia have strained the integration process, as Serbia adamantly opposes Kosovo's independence. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic used the world "terrible" to describe the EU's recent call for a complete normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
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