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This blog was written by Wendy Hassler-Forest, regional program manager for our projects in the Western Balkans.

Musicians Without Borders works under the motto “War Divides, Music Connects.” This statement is perhaps the most fitting for our Mitrovica Rock School: a rock music project we launched in 2008 to help reconnect young people from different communities in war-torn Kosovo. 

And it worked: the Mitrovica Rock School has been working inter-ethnically for 15 years, has graduated over 1,500 students from its lesson program, and has had over 50 mixed bands formed by young musicians from the two sides of the divided town. Rock School bands have written and recorded dozens of original songs, and have traveled to the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Germany, North Macedonia, and the United States.

And so, when we saw the opportunity to expand our rock school program to the European level, this is the project name we landed on: Music Connects. Music Connects is a four-year project bringing together young Serb, Albanian, Roma, Macedonian, Dutch, German and Belgian musicians in daily music lessons and regular exchanges. The project builds musical connections across Kosovo, North Macedonia, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. It is funded by the European Union.

And yet, despite rising tensions in Kosovo, one of the biggest obstacles we are currently facing is not the ethnic division or the history of conflict. It is the European visa regime which continues to apply for citizens of Kosovo, as the only Western Balkans country denied free travel to the EU. Furthermore, it is Musicians Without Borders’ home country, the Netherlands, that has been one of the biggest proponents of keeping it in place.

The visa regime is a nightmare for logistically complex projects such as ours. 

  • It’s time-consuming: We need to work months in advance in order to make appointments, apply for visas, and wait for passports to be returned. For some countries, it is near impossible to even get an appointment.
  • It’s expensive: where we used to pay EUR 30 for a cultural visa to the Netherlands, the cost has risen to (at least) EUR 109. 
  • It’s restrictive: applicants lose their passports for a month between applying and (hopefully) receiving their visa.
  • It’s humiliating: especially for personal visas, applicants are asked to hand over all kinds of personal information, including information on their employment and income, their family situation and even their (or family members’) cash balance in the bank.
  • The outcome is unsure: after completing all these steps, visas may be denied, or, more commonly, come too late.

For us, this has meant that we weren’t able to bring an ethnically mixed group from Mitrovica and Skopje to Berlin for an exciting week of music making and cultural exchange last December. And we’ve now had to postpone valuable teacher training at Fontys Rockacademie twice. Amongst the political noise, it’s the young musicians who miss out on exciting and vital opportunities.

Visa liberalization is said to be on the horizon: the European Commission has proposed to lift visa requirements from next year. Given the many past promises and delayed deadlines, we are skeptical, but we are hopeful.

For this year, we will inevitably continue to have to adjust our plans, and lose time and money, to work within an unjust system that denies citizens of Kosovo the basic freedom of movement afforded to all their neighbors. 

So we call on European member states to remove or alleviate the obstacles to obtaining a visa, by making it faster, cheaper and easier. And we ask member states to bring to this debate the same values that they brought to the creation of the Creative Europe program, and to the European project itself: that cooperation creates value; that co-creation breeds innovation and understanding; and that cultural diversity is something to be celebrated, not feared.

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