Kosovo’s membership application was approved by the Committee of the Ministers of the Council of Europe (CoE) on Monday, April 24th, clearing the way to forward the issue to the organization’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE).
However, the Council’s decision was far from being unanimous. Out of the 41 CoE member states, only 33 voted in favor of Kosovo’s accession, while seven opposed it and five abstained.
Unsurprisingly, the latter two include all five EU members who still haven’t recognized Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. Spain, Romania, and Cyprus voted against the Balkan country’s admission, while Greece and Slovakia chose to abstain.
Also voting against Kosovo’s membership, these countries were joined by Serbia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Hungary, while Ukraine, Moldova, and Bosnia-Herzegovina chose to strengthen the abstainers’ camp.
The last to switch position on the issue was Hungary, which announced its opposition to Kosovo’s “premature” membership back in January, right after the tensions between Pristina and Belgrade escalated during a days-long armed standoff at the border.
“The premature admission of Kosovo by various European entities may jeopardize the search for reconciliation,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó reasoned after meeting his Serbian counterpart in Budapest, where they discussed—among others—their countries’ ambitious plans to address the migration problem together, along with Austria.
Instead, Hungary would prefer to see some decisive breakthrough in the Belgrade-Pristina negotiations first, in order not to overcomplicate the peace process with the CoE admission. “Hungary will vote against the accession of Kosovo to all European organizations until a deal with Serbia has been reached,” Szijjártó said. Although only partial and fragile, an EU-brokered agreement between the two countries was reached in March 2023 but is still waiting for implementation.
Hungary may be the latest but not the only country with a similar position. The decision of the other CoE members to oppose Kosovo’s membership, however, was largely predictable, as they have consistently been against the country’s wider recognition for the past fifteen years.
The EU members who do not recognize Kosovo’s independence have taken that stance largely because they fear recognition could provide a dangerous precedent for their own ethnic minority groups who could also aspire to independence.
Cyprus and Greece have the Turkish issue in Northern Cyprus and Western Thrace, while Romania and Slovakia are mostly worried about the sizable Hungarian communities residing within their borders. Nonetheless, the country that deals with the most serious minority pressure is Spain, with both Catalonia and the Basque Country having expressed their desire to secede in the past.
As the Spanish Foreign Ministry stated after last month’s breakthrough agreement:
Spain welcomes the recent agreements on the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina … The implementation of these agreements, along with previous agreements, is now essential, as this is an opportunity that should not be missed.
[However,] Spain stands by its position that it does not recognize the unilateral declaration of independence adopted by Pristina in 2008.
As for the non-EU members who didn’t like the idea of Kosovo becoming a member of the Council, the formula is very similar. Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia all have their own Russian separatist regions to deal with, Azerbaijan is in a cold (and periodically hot) war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, while Serbia and Bosnia’s position is self-explanatory, with the Serb Republic in the latter standing firmly with Belgrade.
In the eyes of all these countries, admitting Kosovo into the Council of Europe and other high-profile international organizations not only equals a reinforcement of its international recognition but also the emboldening of any other separatist region to embark on the same path.