Kosovars celebrate joining Europe’s visa free Schengen zone

By Fatos Bytyci

PRISTINA (Reuters) – Hundreds of Kosovars rushed to Pristina airport to travel to EU countries on Monday after visas for Europe’s open-borders Schengen zone were waived.

Kosovo was the only country in the Western Balkans whose citizens still needed visas to travel to the EU, many of whose members are part of the programme.

“I do feel as free as a bird now that I can travel all over (Europe),” said Habib Spahiu who was travelling with his son for a two day visit to Vienna.

He was part of a group of 50 people who won a state lottery, paid for by the government, taking the trip to mark the visa free process.

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti greeted travellers at the airport.

“We have been waiting for to long, this has been a long injustice but finally we made it,” Kurti said.

The Schengen area allows more than 400 million people to travel freely between member countries without going through border controls.

Tough requirements from EU member states and domestic disputes have delayed the process for many years.

In 2018 the EU said all requirements were fulfilled but France and Netherlands held up the decision fearing a new wave of migration.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but is still struggling to become a U.N. member state because of objections from Serbia, Russia and China.

Its statehood is recognised by more than 110 countries but the 1.8 million citizens could travel to less than 20 states without visas.

Kosovo still remains one of the poorest countries in Europe and many see visa waiver as an opportunity to get a job.

“I am going to Germany for few days just to see for a job and I will be back again to apply for a working visa,” said a construction worker, who declined to give his name, waiting to get his boarding pass.

The government has asked people not to misuse Schengen rules, which state that people can stay for 90 days out of 180 days as tourists but not work.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Alison Williams)