Europe split on Kosovo independence

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EU foreign ministers will meet today (18 February) in an attempt to thrash out a joint reaction to Kosovo’s declaration of independence amid strong divisions over whether to recognise the newborn state.

While the Union’s four largest nations – Britain, France, Germany and Italy – are expected to announce their recognition directly after the meeting, at least six other countries, including Cyprus, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Spain and Greece, insist they cannot back Kosovo’s unilateral decision to break away from Serbia. 

The move, announced on 17 February by Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi, was immediately declared illegal by Serbia, raising fears of a repeat of the violence that marked the collapse of Yugoslavia a decade ago and putting pressure on the EU to garner some kind of common position in order to guarantee stability in the region. 

EU presidency holder Slovenia said foreign ministers were unlikely to do more than “take note” of the move and attempt to assure both Kosovo and Serbia that they have a future within the EU. 

However, reaching a consensus on the exact wording is likely to prove difficult, with several EU members fearing that Kosovo’s separation could fuel separatist movements in their own countries. 

Among others, Cyprus, whose small island is divided between the internationally-recognised Greek Cypriot South and a Turkish Cypriot North recognised only by Turkey, could prove the most difficult to convince. 

The country has already refused to declare itself in favour of a 1,800 strong police and administration mission to the ethnic Albanian territory, approved by the 27 on 16 February despite strong opposition from Serbia and its Russian ally. 

“I hope we are going to have a platform that is united with virtually everyone,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said before the meeting, adding: “My aim is to have 26. I think that is achievable.” 

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana urged parties to "act calmly and in a responsible way" following Kosovo's declaration of independence, stressing the need for stability in the region. "I am convinced that the Kosovar leaders will be up to their responsibilities in this crucial moment," he said. 

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi said the road had been a long to "arrive at the point when a dream comes true" and tried to calm the fears of the province's minority Serb population by vowing to guarantee equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens. 

"Our constitution outlines that Kosovo is a state for all its citizens. There's no room for intimidation, discrimination or unequal treatment of anyone," he said. 

Serb President Boris Tadic, however, vowed to "do everything in its power to annul this illegal declaration of Kosovan independence". He added: "Serbia will never recognise the independence of Kosovo. Serbia has always reacted, and will react, with calm, diplomatic, legal means in order to annul this act." 

While French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner wished Kosovo "good luck" after the declaration, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on all parties to exercise moderation. "The stability of the region has the highest priority, which requires calm and judgement from all sides involved in the coming days," he said. 

Czech President Vaclav Klaus warned that Kosovo's move could trigger a domino effect in other European countries. "Some parties in other states could realise that they do not feel completely at ease within a big state as they are now," he said. 

The Spanish government, which has long been confronted with Basque and Catalan nationalists, reiterated: "We do not support a unilateral declaration of independence." Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega added: "It should have been in agreement with the various parties, which is not the case, or in line with international standards, that is to say with a (UN) Security Council resolution." 

Slovakia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement "for the time being (it) does not consider recognising Kosovo." 

Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht reserved opinion on the recognition issue until after the EU Council meeting but highlighted a sense of unavoidability as to the present situation, saying the discussion about Kosovo's status had been fruitless and "the status quo appeared to be no longer tenable". 

Members of the European Parliament urged Kosovo leaders to live up to their new responsibilities. "Independence brings with it great responsibility. It is incumbent upon the Albanian majority in Kosovo to guarantee and protect the rights and identity of the Serb minority and avoid provoking any clashes that could spark a new round of aggression in a region that has had far more than its fair share of ethnically-inspired violence," said Graham Watson, leader of the Liberals & Democrats (ALDE)

Joseph Daul, who leads the centre-right EPP-ED group  in the EP, added: "There is an absolute imperative for the preservation of peace and the outmost respect for human rights and multiethnicity on Kosovo […] We must take into account the situation in the wider region, to avoid any escalation, and a return to the failed policy of the 1990s." He further insisted that the decision on whether or not to recognise Kosovo's independence should "not be dictated by threats of violence or radicalisation". 

Green MEPs highlighted Kosovo's "dignified and mature" declaration, saying it augured well for the country's "democratic future". "Today's declaration of independence by Kosovo's parliament is a welcome step to ending the uncertainty that has surrounded the status of Kosovo for some time now," they added. 

On the other hand, leftist MEPs warned EU ministers not to open a "Pandora's box" by recognising Kosovo's unilateral declaration – which it termed a "decidedly dangerous act". "We urge the leaders of the European Union not to lightly create a dangerous precedent: from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Macedonia and Montenegro; from Moldavia to Georgia and Azerbaijan; from Cyprus to Romania and even Spain, the risks of destabilisation are countless. Do not open this Pandora's Box!." they called. 

After years of failed discussions within the United Nations over the future status of the majority Albanian ethnic territory of Kosovo, the breakaway province announced its independence from Serbia on 17 February. 

  • 18 Feb. 2008: EU's foreign affairs ministers to meet in Brussels to discuss their reaction. 
  • 20 Feb. 2008: European Parliament to discuss Kosovo in plenary. 
  • June 2008: EU-LEX mission expected to become fully operational. 

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