A generation of young Kosovans has been taught that freedom of movement is conditional on productivity, and that their productivity is conditional on their freedom of movement. Let’s avoid a generation of “trapped” youth.
Last week I had the utmost pleasure to be a speaker at the European Students For Liberty Regional Conference in Prishtina, Kosovo, where I explained the fundamental values of freedom of expression. I laid out free speech vs. consequence-free speech, the nature of the states that are willing to restrict it, and the solutions to offensive speech in a free society. I had the opportunity to debate these principles with students from all over Kosovo, yet I learned an equally important lesson about the country and the struggles of the students who live there.
One key point that came up repeatedly is the hardship of travel. Kosovo isn’t a rich country by any standard: average income slightly above €500, taxes are relatively high, exacerbated with an 18% VAT, and unemployment is at a worrisome 30 %. But those able to save some money to go abroad are facing a bureaucratic monster. Applications for visas cost money and time, with some spending three months waiting on approval. Applicants need to explain where they are going and why, and must convince administration that they intend to return to Kosovo. The conference organisers were telling me the story of a cancelled evening plane back to Prishtina last summer, causing them to be stuck at the airport with a visa that expired at midnight. Luckily, spending the night in the terminal didn’t necessitate a second check by immigration and they were able to return home without being declared an illegal.
The lack of travel opportunities is palpable even for those who are just visiting Kosovo’s capital. In the city Janjevë you find an impressively large replica of the Eiffel Tower, which locals say was built because very few people ever get to go to Paris. “We are trapped here; it’s a prison,” said one girl to me after I explained that I travel on a regular basis. One can’t help but feel concern for a generation of young people who don’t get to experience other cultures--not even for the purpose of studying or work, but simply through tourism. Young people are being deprived of a wealth of information and personal development when they are denied access to travel. The purpose here is not to quote a spoilt middle-class Danish girl who goes to the south of France and writes on Facebook that “travel broadens the mind,” because it clearly just tans her skin and is of little educational value; what we address here is the inability to explore other cultures in any meaningful way.
It becomes more depressing when we realise that the Schengen Treaty--which is conditional for members of the European Union, while it is not conditional to be a member of the EU to sign the Schengen Treaty–is signed with countries that are very obviously sending “their best.” If we’re honest, then we recognise that Switzerland is part of the Schengen Treaty for two reasons:
1) When Swiss people go on holidays, they spend a lot of money
2) Swiss immigrants do not pose any threat to workers who are members of powerful unions that endeavor to keep immigrants out
And those two reasons are precisely why Kosovo has forbidden visa-free international movement: the tourist industry doesn’t see any added value in their travel, and the risk of them staying in the country indefinitely in order to work is a threat to unions.
Young Kosovans are full of energy, hope, and ambition. 70% of the population is under the age of 35, which means that the country has enormous potential for enthusiastic growth through innovation and the formation of start-up companies. However, if you want the innovators of tomorrow, you need to allow them to exchange ideas across the world. Kosovans have a sense of righteousness, an ability to tolerate non-conventional choices (or direct honesty in their disapproval of unconventional choice), and possess great hospitality and generosity:qualities from which Western Europeans could learn a lot. But maybe that’s the problem: we don’t like competition.