Spain has sometimes looked at itself in the mirror of the Balkans. The Catalan independence movement has on occasion invoked the Slovenian route, and none of the tenants of La Moncloa since 2008 have recognized the independence of Kosovo, declared unilaterally, for fear of giving wings to Catalan or Basque independence aspirations.
But 2021 is not 2008. The soccer teams of Spain and Kosovo have met in international tournaments; Belgrade and Pristina have a dialogue table open; and at this Wednesday’s press conference Pedro Sánchez ended up calling the head of the Kosovar government, Albin Kurti, “prime minister”.
“It is important to be in all forums. Spain has to be in all forums”, Pedro Sánchez said this Wednesday: “Can you imagine that the Government leaves a room for Kosovo in which Serbia is?”
Not so long ago, in 2018, the then President of the Government, Mariano Rajoy, left an EU-Balkans summit, in which the rest of the EU leaders were, so as not to recognize Kosovo’s right to be in the room . In addition to Spain, four other EU countries do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state: Greece, Romania, Cyprus and Slovakia.
The deputy spokesperson for the Popular Group in Congress, Pablo Hispán, has affirmed that Sánchez’s decision “is not clumsy, it is surrender.” According to Hispán, the fact that Sánchez attended the summit with the rest of the 26 EU heads of state and government means “accepting the unilateral declaration of independence” of Kosovo.
Rajoy’s empty chair
In May 2018, Mariano Rajoy vacated Spain’s chair at a summit between the EU and the Balkans held in Sofia (Bulgaria) for the Kosovar leaders to attend. The 2018 format was very similar to this Wednesday. And as of May 2020, a summit that was to be held in Croatia but which was held by videoconference due to the coronavirus crisis, with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, the Republic of North Macedonia and Kosovo.
Both last May and now, the Spanish Government achieved a series of protocol conditions to “feel comfortable” to guarantee the neutrality of the EU in a recognition of a sovereignty that is not unanimous. Thus, the agreement included that there were no national symbols.
“Spain has not changed its position on Kosovo”, diplomatic sources explain, “we continue to be against the unilateral declarations of independence. Now, we are not going to be more papist than the pope and, if Serbia were to reach an agreement with Kosovo, we would support it. We support the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. ”
Community sources explain that, regardless of the reservations of some countries regarding Kosovo, the summit shows the EU’s commitment to the Western Balkans. “The Balkans are also part of Europe and Spain has been in favor of European enlargement for the integration of the Balkan states into the EU,” said Sánchez.
Indeed, the Western Balkan countries are in the queue to join the EU. Albania and North Macedonia are the most advanced countries, although the conflict between Bulgaria and North Macedonia remains a stumbling block: Bulgaria is blocking the start of talks because it demands that Skopje recognize that they have a common history and language .
The 27 have reaffirmed this Wednesday in Brdo’s statement their “commitment” to the enlargement process, to which they do not set dates or deadlines. In addition, they commit to “mobilize 30,000 million euros over the next seven years, between 9,000 million euros in transfers and 20,000 million in investments, through the new Guarantee of the Western Balkans.”
In the document, the 27 recall that “the EU and its Member States have provided 2.9 million doses of vaccines to the Western Balkans”, and affirm that “there will be more in the future. The EU will support the vaccination plans of all partners to help achieve vaccination rates similar to the EU average before the end of 2021 “.
“From historical experience,” Sánchez said, “we are not a founding country of the EU and that is why we are in favor of enlargement processes. We consider the Western Balkans just another region of Europe, its member states as sister states that they have to be part of the EU on the nearest horizon. We encourage them to resolve their internal issues, their disputes, and to comply with the reform agenda linked to the rule of law. ”
Sánchez has affirmed that “the Western Balkans is not an area alien” to Spain: “We received refugees, we did the exercise of solidarity both within our home and in those countries to guarantee peace and stabilize the historically very troubled region.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said after the summit that some internal tensions made it difficult for him to join the European Union. Macron affirmed that the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo “remains complex and tense,” and revealed that the leaders of those two countries and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel held a meeting. He also said that the problems between North Macedonia and Bulgaria have returned.
“We must advance in these matters,” said Macron, who opted “to return a perspective of integration in the short term to the Balkans, which are in the heart of Europe, you only have to look at a map to realize it.”
Slovenia (since 2004) and Croatia (2013) do belong to the EU.
The president of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, assured for her part that “the EU is not complete without the Western Balkans.” At the same time, he asked, in line with what was approved in the Brdo declaration, that reforms in matters of the rule of law, respect for human rights, freedom of the press and economic measures be continued to advance the expansion.