Opinion

The 28th member state

18.02.08 @ 17:40

  1. By Pim de Kuijer

Its anthem (for the moment) is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, its currency the euro and it houses more EU civil servants than any other place outside Brussels. Welcome to Kosovo, 28th Member State of the European Union.

  • Graffiti in Pristina protesting the EU's presence (Photo: Pim de Kuijer)

Or it would be, if it were not for the fact that not all EU members will recognise Sunday's declaration of independence, casting doubts on future membership prospects. In the meantime though, the EU will have a great say in running the new country. Perhaps more so than if it really were a new member state. The EU will deploy not one but three so-called pillars, the International Civilian Office (ICO), the EULEX mission with a focus on the rule of law and the European Commission's Liaison Office. Confused locals are already clamouring for just one EU interlocutor in the field.

The ICO's stated aim is to prepare for a transfer of authority from UNMIK, which currently administers Kosovo for the UN, towards the Kosovo authorities. But how long this will take is anyone's guess. Milosevic's termination of Kosovo's administrative autonomy in the late eighties has left a whole generation of Kosovars without much experience of good governance, although Kosovars themselves will claim that the parallel structures set up clandestinely provided them with the best training possible.

Still, with tensions remaining high between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs living in Kosovo, it may be a long time yet before it is decided the ICO is no longer needed. This, coupled with the presence of up to 2000 European police officers, judges and legal experts in the form of the EULEX mission, might lead Kosovars to question what self-determination actually means for them in practice.

Already signs of discontent are visible. Overnight, walls in the new capital Pristina as well as in other cities have been covered by graffiti saying no to the EULEX mission. Traffic lights light up stickers saying Jo EUMIK (a play of words on UNMIK), vetëvendosje, or ‘no to EUMIK, forwards.'

The Vetëvendosje movement, made up mostly of young Kosovars, does not limit its activities to spray-painting walls.

A year ago, in February 2007, two men died during demonstrations against the international presence. One of the leaders of Vetëvendosje, Albin Kurti, is currently under arrest, accused of organising violent protests. Vetëvendosje claims thousands of followers but it is hard to tell how much support, if any, it enjoys among the general population. However, if prolonged EU presence will not be seen as helpful to resolving the people's day-to-day problems, support for Vetëvendosje or similar movements is likely to grow.

This means the EU should put sufficient energy into winning over the local population. After a recent visit to what was then still the province of Kosovo and having spoken to many locals as well as internationals, I believe this can be done in three ways.

Getting economy right

Firstly, the EU should look beyond its own interests in the region. The EULEX mission will focus on the rule of law, with the EU standing to lose if organised crime gets even more of a foothold in Kosovo. Already, women traffickers and drug traffickers use Kosovo as a stopover on the way to EU member states.

But the local population is more concerned about the economy. Roughly half the country is made up of young people under the age of 25, with unemployment at over 60%. Many young Kosovars think about leaving Kosovo for France, Germany or, most popular of all, the USA. The poor level of education and the lack of jobs are their two foremost reasons to think about leaving. The EU presence should work with local authorities on strengthening the economy and improving education.

Secondly, the EU should build up local capacity. Kosovars need to see that the way is being paved for them to take over the reins of their own country. Kosovars say one of the faults of the UNMIK administration was to use local staff almost exclusively as translators and drivers. The EULEX preparatory mission for one is planning to give local staff real career opportunities within the new mission. It is also foreseen that its international police officers, judges and legal experts will be coupled with local colleagues, thereby leaving behind knowledge and skills by the time the mission leaves.

Colonial power?

The third way is perhaps the most difficult one. The European expats who will be working in Kosovo over the next few years should try their utmost to get along with the local population, if they are not to be perceived as colonial powers. Differences in lifestyle, income, language skills and values will make this integration very difficult.

Kosovar society, despite the modern look of its inhabitants, shops and European television programmes, is still quite traditional. It is influenced by an old moral code known as the canons of Lekë Dukagjini, a mediaeval prince. Many Kosovar Albanians deny that this code is still in force, but police in the country side still have to take people into custody simply to protect them from blood feuds. The European expats will have to tread a careful line between respecting local culture and adressing its wrongs.

All in all, the EU's presence in Kosovo is likely to be a learning experience for all involved. As the biggest foreign EU presence with more powers than any other EU mission, it will be a test of the limits of the European Common Foreign and Security Policy as well as the European Security and Defense Policy. With the Reform Treaty in its ratification process, Kosovo may also prove to be a future training ground for the new post-Lisbon foreign policy of the EU. If Kosovo turns out to be another Bosnia, where internationals have been running the show for the last 13 years, the EU will have years to hone its skills.

To end on a positive note, it should be said that the fact that the EU is on the ground in Kosovo is already a success in itself. Although the EU is divided on the issue of recognition of Kosovo, the new mission can go ahead thanks to the formula of constructive abstention, which gives member states such as Cyprus the possibility of not agreeing to send a mission to Kosovo, without obstructing it.

Finally, the EU is learning how to agree to disagree.

The author is a policy officer in the European Parliament and election observer for the Dutch Foreign Ministry.