Kosovo – the EU’s many voices

The EU’s policies in the Western Balkans – particularly vis-a-vis Kosovo – threaten to undermine its credibility as an international actor and raise profound questions about the very future of its burgeoning Common Foreign and Security Policy.

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By Sabin Selimi

Supported by the US and most EU member states, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence on 17th February 2008 on the basis of the Ahtisaari plan. The EU is now paying a high price for not being able to speak with one voice on Kosovo, undermining its very credibility as an international actor. As a result, Kosovo’s politicians are continually looking to the US rather than the EU for support and political guidance. With five EU member states continuing to withhold recognition of Kosovo’s independence – both out of their own national self-interests and other fears related to Kosovo’s final status – this stalemate is likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

From a legal perspective, Kosovo’s declaration of independence bore a hole in the legal framework provided by UN Security Council Resolution 1244. With the UN’s Special Representative in Kosovo having made it clear that the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) was not in a position to oppose the new facts on the ground, EU member states – divided between a coalition of the willing and the non-recognizers – deployed both the EU Special Representative (EUSR) and the EU’s Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) Mission. The EUSR – Peter Feith, an experienced Dutch diplomat – simultaneously functioned as the International Special Representative (ISR), who headed the International Civilian Office (ICO). Though the two mandates were strictly independent from one other, the arrangement became rather schizophrenic due to the fact that the EUSR does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, whilst the ICO derived its legitimacy from Kosovo’s constitution and the Comprehensive Status Settlement.

The EU’s rule of law mission (EULEX) – the EU’s largest ESDP mission – was also deployed. EULEX’s status neutrality left a bad taste amongst Kosovo Albanians, who had hope it would provide an affirmation from the EU’s side of Kosovo’s independence and sovereignty. EULEX officials are also well aware that they can only exist and function because Kosovo’s constitution outlines a role for them, in spite of EULEX’s non-recognition of that very constitution.

The international supervision of Kosovo symbolically ended on 10th September 2012, with many international appointees – including from EULEX – retaining their positions within key institutional positions. Many of these mandates have been extended until 2014, including for instance a sustained presence within the Auditor General, the Privatization Agency of Kosovo, the Kosovo Property Agency, the Kosovo Pensions Savings Trust, the Independent Commissions for the Review of Serb Language Textbooks, the Constitutional Court, the Kosovo Judicial Council and the Supreme Court. Despite the closure of the ICO, EULEX and an international military presence will remain. Practically speaking, Kosovo’s fate is related to amendments to UNSC Resolution 1244 depends on Russia, whose political decisions are based on Serbia’s own position towards Kosovo.

So far, four of the five EU member states not recognizing Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence participate in EULEX, but have sent mixed messages regarding Kosovo’s status outside EULEX. Their political behaviour could be interpreted as a willingness to resolve the issue of recognition in a constructive way, whilst at the same time resolving the incapacity of the EU to act with one voice in-line with its ambitions to develop a coherent and consistent common foreign policy.

The coherence and consistence of EU foreign policy was one of the main driving forces that led to the Lisbon Treaty. However, the new treaty makes very few changes on the ground, except for some small adjustments like reducing the number of officials speaking on behalf of the Union. Theoretically, therefore, the EU becomes more supranational rather than intergovernmental. The first and second pillars of the Union will always remain separate, and so will EULEX and the European Commission Office in Kosovo. The real challenge, therefore, remains one of coordination between EU member states, something which no treaty can resolve.

Ever since Kosovo declared unilateral independence in 2008, Belgrade viewed the issues of Kosovo’s status and EU membership as separate; a stance that the EU has largely refuted. Most EU members believe that Serbia’s ambitions to join the EU are tightly interrelated with the normalization of relations with Pristina – perhaps even recognition of Kosovo. The EU is not interested in further unresolved territorial disputes and ethnic conflicts in the Western Balkans, nor in importing such problems into the Union. Asking too much from Belgrade too soon is disadvantageous for Kosovo due to Serbia’s blockade. Asking too little from Belgrade, however, leads to a piling up of problems between Serbia and Kosovo. It is implausible that the EU will risk compromising its foreign policy in the region by accepting Serbia as a member if relations with Kosovo have not been normalized; perhaps even recognition of Kosovo’s statehood.

As a result, the EU risks losing its most powerful foreign policy instrument in Kosovo, especially the normative pull of EU membership. So far the prophecy set out in the EU’s foreign policy strategy about a loss of credibility in the Western Balkans is quickly becoming a reality. The latest opinion polls conducted by Serbia’s EU Integration Office shows that less than fifty percent of citizens endorse Serbia’s EU entry. The concern regarding Kosovo is not whether the EU fails to create a functioning and stable government in Kosovo, but that the EU’s policies in the Balkans lead to a loss of credibility as an international actor and the failure of its Common Foreign and Security Policy. It will be an insufficient excuse if the failure of the EU’s foreign policy in Kosovo – and indeed the wider region – comes as a result of a non-decision, rather than as the result of a wrong decision.

Sabin Selimi is a student of economics and international studies at the American University in Washington, DC.

If you are interested in contributing to the debate on Kosovo, particularly the north, then please contact TransConflict by clicking here.

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