Amid protests in Kosovo, EU presses ahead with its enlargement strategy

Kosovo has been an unruly place for the past few months. Despite widespread unrest and opposition protests against an-EU backed deal with Serbia, the EU presses ahead with its current enlargement strategy. A recent debate in the European Parliament confirmed the EU is staying its course on Serbia and Kosovo.

MEPs debated the progress on Serbia and Kosovo last month –politically sensitive, both Kosovo and Serbia are always discussed at the same time. Dutch Foreign Minister Koenders (with the Netherlands currently holding the rotating EU presidency) and EU Commissioner for the Neighbourhood Johannes Hahn opened the debate. Both stressed the importance of normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo, with Koenders saying “Unless stabilisation is clearly visible, it will be difficult to move forward on association.” Both of them called for dialogue between the government and the opposition, and between Kosovo and Serbia. [1]

A similar sound was heard from Ulrike Lunacek (Greens), the parliament’s long-standing rapporteur on Kosovo. She summed up a lot of positive points, including the successful signing of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement. “This Parliament has been supportive of Kosovo’s independence, since the beginning, and we need to move forward on that with the Commission and the Council, because this country is still not fully recognised by all EU Member States. Five are still blocking,” she said, to the dismay of deputies from Slovakia, Romania, Greece, Spain and Cyprus – who generally vote against resolutions and texts on Kosovo. Added to their voices were those of the Eurosceptics who denounced Kosovo as being just a province of Serbia. Georg Mayer of the ENF stated “I’m wondering why we are discussing the integration of Kosovo. Wouldn’t it be better to discuss the integration of the whole of Serbia?” ALDE MEP Hilde Vautmans was more positive, saying “We see progress, we can hope, but there are still some important points of attention, including press freedom and the battle against corruption.”[2]

Backsliding

In the debate on Serbia, we heard similar noises from Koenders and Hahn. Serbia has made progress, but needs to make more. The normalisation process with Kosovo remains paramount. Serbia has opened the first “chapters” in the EU negotiation process and is thus more advanced on its path towards the EU than Kosovo, which has not yet obtained the official status of candidate country to join the EU. The opening of Chapter 35, which governs the betterment of relations with Kosovo, was especially applauded by MEPs.

Rapporteur David McAllister (EPP) stressed some problematic areas, including the rule of law, media freedom and the state of democracy. He closed with a familiar tune “Regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations form an essential part of the Western Balkan countries’ process of moving towards our European Union.” James Carver of the Eurosceptic EFDD group criticised the enlargement process, saying an eventual Serbian membership is “bringing [the EU’s] borders closer to the Middle East and thus further facilitating this mass transit of people”.[3]

Opposition

Since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, the country has been recognized by just over half of UN member states. Five EU states (Slovakia, Spain, Cyprus, Greece and Romania) still do not recognise it, mainly out of national sensibilities. The EU did manage to force a breakthrough with the signature of a normalisation deal between Serbia and Kosovo in 2013.[4] Serbia still sees Kosovo as a renegade province and refuses to accept their (Western-backed) independence. Normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo has since been an EU priority: both countries cannot advance on their path towards eventual membership of the Union if they do not make progress between one another.

However, the deals are controversial. Serbian President Nikolic was very critical of the EU’s approach in October and said “Civil war would break out” if Serbia ever recognised Kosovo’s independence.[5] Meanwhile, the Vetevendosje self-determination movement in Kosovo vehemently protests the deal and any EU involvement, which they say only increases Serbian influence inside Kosovo. Vetevendosje MPs have regularly set off tear-gas and tried to obstruct the Kosovar parliament, such as during the election of foreign minister Hashim Thaci as president last week. [6]

While the situation in Serbia is more stable – Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is expected to win an absolute majority in early elections he called for the end of April – there remain some concerns. Freedom of expression and media seems to have taken a hit, and there are concerns about Vucic’s authoritarian tendencies.[7]

Tone-deaf

In the end, the debate remained rather tone-deaf. The enlargement process towards Serbia and Kosovo has broad support from the Greens to the conservative ECR, from the centre-right EPP to the centre-left S&D and the liberal ALDE. The radical left (GUE-NGL), the eurosceptics from the EFDD and extreme right from ENF are and remain against. The only difference in voting patterns is that MEPs from the five countries that don’t recognise Kosovo tend to vote against those resolutions on Kosovo regardless of political group.

It remains to be seen if the EU’s strategy in the region will ultimately pay off. The debate last month certainly shows the EU is not changing course, despite the unrest in Kosovo and the backsliding in Serbia. As seen, Eurosceptics will certainly take any chance to pound on the EU’s mistakes.

[1] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+CRE+20160203+ITEM-013+DOC+XML+V0//EN&language=EN

[2] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+CRE+20160203+ITEM-013+DOC+XML+V0//EN&language=EN

[3] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+CRE+20160203+ITEM-012+DOC+XML+V0//EN&language=EN

[4] http://www.dw.com/en/kosovo-question-still-divides-eu/a-16226802 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/apr/30/serbia-kosovo-historic-agreement-brussels

[5] http://wwwe.ansa.it/nuova_europa/en/news/countries/serbia/2015/10/16/nikolic-civil-war-if-serbia-were-to-recognize-kosovo_e7f378a7-baa3-4a00-ad94-43daed6d9557.html

[6] http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/hashim-thaci-elected-president-of-kosovo-02-26-2016

[7] http://harvardpolitics.com/world/road-yet-taken-assessment-aleksandar-vucic/

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