Financial Times

October 6, 2013 1:22 pm

EU makes headway on healing Kosovo independence rift

By Tony Barber in London

EU governments are making progress on healing their split over recognition of Kosovo’s independence, a step that would remove a big diplomatic obstacle to integrating the former Serbian province more closely with the EU.

Cyprus, Greece and Slovakia – three of the five EU states that refused to recognise Kosovo when it declared independence from Serbia in 2008 – sent clear signals that they were reconsidering their positions when each of their foreign ministers held a meeting last month with Enver Hoxhaj, their Kosovar counterpart.

    Mr Hoxhaj, after his talks with Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia on the sidelines of the UN General Assemblyin New York, tweeted that the meeting had been “fruitful and important . . . New perspectives [lie] ahead”.

    For five years, the disagreement over Kosovo has been one of the most glaring examples of how difficult the EU finds it to operate a common foreign policy. But diplomats say the prospects for a partial solution started to brighten after Lady Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, brokered a deal in April between Serbia and Kosovo on settling their differences.

    “Don’t expect instant announcements on this, but things are moving on the recognition front,” one EU diplomat said.

    More than 100 countries recognise Kosovo’s independence, but several powerful nations do not, including Brazil, China, India and Russia.

    The April accord opened the door for Serbia to begin formal negotiations on joining the 28-nation EU and for Kosovo to secure a so-called association agreement, an essential precondition for EU entry.

    It also offered space for most of the five non-recognisers of Kosovo to extend diplomatic feelers towards the young state, whose population is mainly ethnic Albanian but contains a significant ethnic Serb minority. Greece and Slovakia started this process even earlier, in fact, by agreeing last year to accept passports issued by Kosovo.

    Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain withheld recognition in 2008 largely because each felt it set a dangerous precedent for secession-minded national minorities in their own countries or, in Greece’s case, its close ally Cyprus, where the Turkish Cypriots proclaimed an independent state 30 years ago.

    Of the five holdouts, Spain is most resistant to softening its stance, because the conservative government in Madrid is extremely sensitive to a recent surge inseparatist sentiment in Catalonia.

    The Kosovo question remains a divisive issue in Romania, with Traian Basescu, the president, opposed to recognition, and Victor Ponta, the prime minister, in favour. Non-recognition was originally driven, as in Slovakia, by concerns over the nation’s ethnic Hungarian minority.

    Mr Lajcak is a former high-level EU representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina who knows the Balkans well and is sympathetic to the idea of recognition of Kosovo. But a move in this direction would need to begin with a reversal of a resolution passed by Slovakia’s parliament in 2007 against recognition.

    Both Greece and Cyprus appreciate that recognition of Kosovo would bring them diplomatically closer to France, Germany, Italy and other eurozone countries that have supported emergency financial rescues for them since 2010.

    Greece had particularly close relations with Serbia during the violent break of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but as Serbia draws closer to EU membership Greek policy makers see an opportunity to break the ice with Kosovo.

    In Cyprus Nikos Anastasiades, the centre-right president who came to power in February, is less keen than his communist predecessor on following the Russian line on non-recognition of Kosovo. He also wants to dispel Cyprus’s image as a “single-issue state” whose policies on all EU matters are seen through the prism of the dispute between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots.