Alejandro Esteso Perez
Agenda Publica by El Pais July 12, 2022

Approaching Kosovo

This article was originally published in Spanish by Agenda Publica.

Since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, Spain has routinely chained episodes of diplomatic clumsiness and uncomfortable standoffs with the young Balkan country. The Spanish ‘out of sight, out of mind’ strategy vis-à-vis Prishtina has taken a toll on Madrid’s image on not few occasions, from European summits to football matches.

A year away from kicking off its rotating presidency at the EU Council, Spain currently stands before the ideal context to define and trace its diplomatic endeavour (until today, forcefully void) with Kosovo. Spain is ready to set off on a process of defreezing relations with Prishtina, and it is appropriate that it does so immediately. The moment is now and three factors endorse this.

The first step is taken

In November last year, the then Spanish Secretary of State for the EU, Juan González-Barba, stated at a public debate that Spain was preparing a rapprochement to Kosovo: “Our strategy towards the Western Balkans will remain incomplete as long as we keep ignoring Kosovo. We are exploring several ways to approach the country as a non-recognising EU Member State”, adding that “the decision will soon be made and it will be announced”.

These words, picked up on by several media in Kosovo, generated a clear enthusiasm in Prishtina once it became implicit that Madrid, Kosovo’s hardest nut to crack among the five non-recognising EU Member States, could be shyly initiating a diplomatic defreezing. On the one hand, while this was good news for Kosovo, it was even better news for Spain: González-Barba’s statement evidenced, above all, that the Kosovo question had been up for discussion at the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, well in spite of being considered a taboo subject—to such an extent that it was thought dead.

In all, however, González-Barba, a diplomat with a particular penchant for the Western Balkans and a fervent supporter of the region’s EU membership, quit his position as Secretary of State, and was replaced by diplomat and former Ambassador Pascual Navarro.

Ever since this handover, effective only two months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Spain’s Foreign Ministry has remained silent regarding Kosovo. No sign of rapprochement with Prishtina has been made public since the former Secretary of State’s confident hint towards diplomatic conciliation, which was even termed as “imminent”.

All eyes are set on Spain

In his role as new Secretary of State, one of Pascual Navarro’s foremost responsibilities will be to spearhead Spain’s path towards the rotating EU Council presidency, which Madrid will hold between July and December 2023. Pending Sweden’s programme and subsequent list of priorities, as Stockholm will preside the Council until June, all eyes are set on Spain for the hosting of a new EU-Western Balkans Summit in 2023.

Regular high-level summits between the EU and the Western Balkans have become common practice in the framework of the recent rotating Council presidencies. A system has been de facto established since 2018 for this purpose. Successive summits in Sofia (Bulgaria), Zagreb (Croatia) and Brdo pri Kranju (Slovenia) have ensued almost annually, gathering the leaders of the 27 Member States and of the six countries of the Western Balkans. Even though former Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy did not attend the 2018 summit due to Kosovo’s presence, incumbent leader Pedro Sánchez did take part at the 2020 and 2021 editions. The 2022 summit is expected to be held in the Czech Republic after a failed attempt by France.

Spain will have to dust off its political strategy vis-à-vis the region ahead of its potential hosting of a new EU-Western Balkans Summit. A summit which, needless to say, Kosovo will attend. It is high time for Madrid, who has consistently failed at refining its relations with Prishtina and has evidenced a clumsy diplomatic strategy, to start exploring its rapprochement to Kosovo’s authorities and crafting a potential framework of bilateral relations.

The model implemented by Greece, a non-recognising EU Member State which holds diplomatic and commercial ties with Kosovo through its Liaison Office in Prishtina, illustrates one of the many types of cooperation available. Even acknowledging the geographically closer nature of relations between Greece and Kosovo, Spain could well opt for a more softened degree of engagement via, for instance, the opening of a trade office in Prishtina under the wing of its Embassy in North Macedonia.

The Spanish rotating presidency provides a key opportunity to renew the country’s commitment to the Western Balkans on several fronts, especially given Spain’s profound pro-Europeanness and its traditional support for EU enlargement. Indeed, among the largest EU Member States, Spain’s population shows the highest support rates for the Western Balkans’ EU bids

Ukraine is paving the way

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has agitated the European geopolitical board, triggering the reshuffling of alliances and strengthening polarisation at a multilateral level. As a result, not only Kyiv submitted its EU candidacy application, which the 27 Member States approved in late June, but also Moldova and Georgia—the former of which also made the cut.

In the Western Balkans, this dance of alliances is reviving Bosnia and Herzegovina’s candidacy conundrum, and unease towards Serbia, whose government has not approved any sanctions against Moscow, is growing.

For its part, in late May, Kosovo formally applied for membership in the Council of Europe. Taking advantage of the momentum following Russia’s expulsion only a few weeks before, Prishtina announced the imminent submission of its candidacy to Strasbourg. While the final vote is yet to be scheduled, numbers do play in Kosovo’s favour: among the organisation’s 46 States, of which 34 are recognisers, Prishtina would need a minimum of two-thirds, so 31 votes, to confirm its access as full-fledged member.

Diplomatic sources in Kosovo have likewise disclosed that Kosovo will submit its application for EU membership before the end of the year. As of today, Kosovo remains a potential candidate country as its citizens painfully wait for the long-expected Schengen visa liberalisation.

The war in Ukraine is acting as a unifying vehicle all across the EU. Against this backdrop, Spain must prove its political sensitivity also towards other issues that endanger the Union’s stability. Kosovo’s potential membership in the Council of Europe is one of these. Although Spain’s negative vote could be likely assumed as of now, Madrid must reflect deeply on the implications of this decision, which would lead to the further isolation of a young and deeply European country that is commited to upholding the EU’s position vis-à-vis Russia’s invasion.

Spain has at its fingertips a natural window of opportunity to justify its steady rapprochement to Kosovo. In the short and medium term, Madrid’s foremost goal must focus on minimising the risk of domestic reactions through a policy of gradual acknowledgement of Kosovo as an international subject detached from Serbia (de facto, a reality) while bolstering its support for the EU integration of the Western Balkans as a whole. In the long run, Spain must aspire to positioning itself as a non-recognising Member State that holds diplomatic, commercial and cultural ties with Prishtina. Only through a sensible strategy that keeps the regional context well in mind will Spain be able to ensure an effective foreign policy that reaffirms its role as a guarantor of stability in the EU’s nearest neighbourhood.