Kosovo aims to join EU within a decade

Foreign minister sees Ireland as good role model for development

Kosovo’s foreign minister, Enver Hoxhaj, at the Conrad Hotel in Dublin this week. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Kosovo’s foreign minister, Enver Hoxhaj, at the Conrad Hotel in Dublin this week. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Fri, Jan 17, 2014, 01:00

Kosovo is targeting European Union membership within the next 10 years, according to its foreign minister.

Enver Hoxhaj acknowledged widespread “integration fatigue” in the EU but said Croatia’s accession last year had created “big momentum” in the Balkans and Kosovo was well placed to join by 2022.

“Croatia getting membership is a model of inspiration for all political elites, governments and business people in the Balkans in how to modernise themselves, how to reform themselves and how to make that fit in order to get membership,” he said, while Kosovo’s population was “the most pro-European” in the region.

Dr Hoxhaj was speaking on a visit to Dublin, where he met Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore and addressed the Institute of European and International Affairs.

Kosovo’s hopes of joining the EU received a boost last June, when, during Ireland’s presidency of the union, the European Council approved the opening of negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement. These deals, negotiated with states that have expressed an interest in joining the bloc, typically involve the state being offered tariff-free access to some EU markets as well as some financial assistance in exchange for commitments on political and economic reforms. Negotiations with Kosovo formally began last autumn.

“Without the support of your Government this couldn’t have happened,” said Dr Hoxhaj. “Mr Gilmore played a pretty crucial role in that because I talked to him very often, explaining to him how important it was for Kosovo to start the negotiations as soon as possible.”


Pristina criticised
Formidable obstacles remain in Kosovo’s way, however. Its 2008 declaration of independence has not been recognised by Serbia or five EU member states, and the European Commission has sharply criticised Pristina for the treatment of the 100,000 ethnic Serbs (out of a population of just under two million, of whom 90 per cent are ethnic Albanians) who live within its borders.

Dr Hoxhaj – a former history professor – notes an agreement between Kosovo with Serbia last April as a key “historic” breakthrough in Kosovo’s efforts to establish itself and normalise relations with its neighbour. Under the deal, concluded after months of talks, both sides pledged not to block each other’s bid for EU membership. The accord gives a high degree of autonomy to the Serb-majority areas in Kosovo and allows them their own ethnic Serb police chief and appeal court. Both sides have opened “liaison offices” in each other’s capitals.

“The agreement was important because it closed a chapter of 100 years of conflicts and wars and genocide, which Serbia committed in Kosovo,” said Dr Hoxhaj. “It was the first ever agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. And it opened a new phrase in relations.”

That symbolically important agreement has been accompanied by 14 bilateral deals between Belgrade and Pristina on practical questions such as trade and cross-border movement.


Serb minority

However, Dr Hoxhaj concedes more has to be done to integrate and accommodate the Serb minority in the north.

“We have been a small nation in Yugoslavia, very much oppressed,” he said. “We know what it means to be small. Kosovo is built on three big pillars – to be a democratic country, to be a multi-ethnic country and to be a secular state. Multi-ethnicity is part of our identity.”

Kosovo’s diplomatic efforts take place against a domestic social backdrop marked by immense challenges. Six years after declaring independence, Kosovo remains one of the poorest places in Europe. Youth unemployment is at 55 per cent and almost half the population lives below the poverty line. Young states are “fragile”, said Dr Hoxhaj, but he takes pride in Kosovo’s institutional and economic stability. Last year, the economy grew by 5 per cent.


Irish connection
Dr Hoxhaj has been a regular visitor to Ireland, having brought delegations from the Kosovo assembly’s education committee, which he previously chaired, here several times to study the Irish school and university system. He speaks warmly of Ireland’s involvement in Kosovo, pointing out that it was among the first to recognise Kosovo as an independent state and has had a significant presence there in recent years in the form of hundreds of soldiers, diplomats and human rights activists.

He sees inspiration for Kosovo in Ireland’s successes in education, foreign investment and technology. “There is also the dynamism of the society, which is the case with us as well. We are small, but in Kosovo there is a kind of culture of hope, which was important to us in facing the sufferings we faced as a nation. I think Ireland is a very good model.”