More than 15 years after its declaration of independence, five EU countries stubbornly refuse to recognise Kosovo. This harms both the EU’s foreign policy in the Balkans and Kosovo’s prospects for statehood.
Kosovo was the last country to emerge out of the embers of Yugoslavia. An overwhelming majority of the country’s Assembly (109 out of 120 members) proclaimed Kosovo’s sovereignty from Serbia in February 2008.
Kosovo’s independence was the culmination of a difficult, at times gruesome process which hit its most tragic point in the 1998-99 Kosovo War, when a flailing Yugoslavia brutally repressed the Kosovan insurrection led by the Kosovo Liberation Army (which was crucially supported by NATO forces during the early months of 1999).
The war ended with the Kumanovo Agreement signed in France in 1999. The United Nations agreed to form a peacekeeping mission (UNMIK) to oversee and facilitate the path towards a self-sufficient and autonomous Kosovo, which continues to this day.
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Kosovo has an overwhelming majority of ethnic Albanians who predominantly oppose integration with Serbia. Besides, as a Muslim-majority country, the memory of widespread violence and targeting of Muslims and Islamic holy sites by Serbian nationalists during the 1990s persists in the Kosovars’ collective memory. This all contributes to a strong support for Kosovo’s full-fledged statehood.
However, 15 years after the declaration of independence, Kosovo is far from fully sovereign. Its status remains controversial in some quarters, including in the European Union, as five member states still refuse to recognise its independence: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain. In spite of this and perhaps paradoxically, Kosovo was granted EU candidate status in December 2022.
In all fairness, the EU as a bloc does not need to recognise Kosovo. In fact, the core treaties (the TUE and the TFEU) do not mention recognition of third states as a competence of the EU.
However, the fact that five EU members have an explicit policy of not acknowledging Kosovo’s independence is an obstacle towards a fully-fledged common EU position. These five governments justify their position by arguing that Kosovo’s declaration of independence back in 2008 was not in accordance with international law. However, a 2010 ruling by the International Court of Justice did not deem Kosovo’s independence as illegal, throwing into question the five countries’ stances.
A state for all intents and purposes
But law is not the only thing at play here. Political realities, not legal ones, are usually the engine of international politics. And the fact is that Kosovo is a state for all intents and purposes, much to the Serbian government’s chagrin. Kosovo has its own assembly and state institutions, and it adopted the euro as its currency as far back as 2002.
The Balkan state is also recognised by a majority of world governments (117 out of 193 states in the UN), and enjoys full membership of several international organisations, like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Customs Organisation. Yes, Kosovo already is a de facto state.
This is all to say that recognising Kosovo as a sovereign country is a sound policy not only from the viewpoint of international law, but also as a matter of realpolitik.
It seems evident that by having a position commonly agreed by all 27 members, the EU would be better able to defend its interests credibly and to adopt a coherent, constructive policy in the sensitive Balkans region. The five EU members who refuse to recognise Kosovo are not doing themselves any favours by going against a global tide which points to a gradual integration of Kosovo into global politics as a sovereign actor.
Even Serbia reluctantly treats Kosovo as a de facto state (by entering negotiations, signing treaties and committing not to interfere in Kosovo’s EU accession process)—and agreed to normalise relations with its southern neighbour in March 2023.
Russia, traditionally Serbia’s most important sponsor in the region, tacitly recognises Kosovo’s statehood too. Just as political realities trump legal considerations, actions usually matter more than words in international politics. And, for all the nationalist rhetoric and chest-thumping coming from Belgrade, Serbian actions signal that its government acknowledges that Kosovo sovereignty is a fait accompli.
Postponing the inevitable
In a nutshell, it is in the EU’s interest to move towards a full consensus on the issue of Kosovo’s independence. Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain are postponing what seems inevitable and is, in fact, already occurring: the normalisation of Kosovo’s independence (even if only de facto) by most regional and global actors, even by its rivals.
While they publicly cite legal reasons to support their policy, it is common knowledge that the five countries have domestic reasons not to recognise Kosovo’s independence. However, the truth is that admitting Kosovo as a sovereign state is very unlikely to change much of the domestic landscape in either of the five countries. After all, the circumstances of Kosovo’s independence and the causes leading to it are dramatically different to, for instance, the pro-independence views of a part of the Catalan population in Spain.
The stubborn stance against Kosovo of these five countries reveals their delusional wish to deny the geopolitical reality of the Balkan region in 2023. For all the pro-European attitudes coming from governments and societies in Athens, Madrid, Nicosia and others, their insistence to cling to a self-defeating an anti-realist policy is harming the European Union and hindering the development of a coherent European foreign policy at a time when it is more crucial than ever.
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