On Thursday night (July 13), K2.0 welcomed a full house to the Dit’ e Nat’ cafe in Prishtina for a panel discussion about the continued challenges European integration poses for Kosovo. Panelists included Jeton Mehmeti from the GAP Institute, Katarina Tadic from the European Policy Centre in Belgrade, Albana Merja from the Group for Legal and Political Studies, Rudina Hasimja from the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society, and Remzije Istrefi, a professor at the University of Prishtina.
Miruna Troncota, the final panelist and author of the recently published book Post-Conflict Europeanization and the War of Meanings, began the discussion with an unanticipated statement: “I have to disappoint you — I don’t know what Europeanization actually means.” For Troncota, by and large, the EU’s ‘member state building’ has just meant that it has taken pre-existing tools for enlargement, and applied them to the Balkans, without particular attention to the unique challenges the region holds.
In its place, Troncota offered another concept: post-conflict Europeanization, one which recognizes that in post-conflict situations, ethnic groups attach different meanings to political realities, and wrestle over public narratives, making the road to reconciliation, and subsequently European integration, even more complicated. Her book showcases the way that different sides are telling different stories in front of cameras, leading to citizens perceiving the reality of the situation very differently from what has happened behind closed doors, and consequently harboring very different expectations.
For Troncota, the Brussels Agreement of 2013 is an important example of an event that meant very different things for different people: “In the case of the agreement, the biggest problem is that those who are left out are the subjects of the agreements themselves,” she said.
Katarina Tadic confirmed Troncota’s statements about the disparity in expectations, noting that Kosovo has had higher expectations of the agreements than Serbia from the very beginning. While Kosovo expected to solve the issue of its status and be recognized by the five remaining EU member states, as well as to be formally recognized by Serbia, Serbia has never had any intention of recognizing Kosovo. Tadic noted that as it stands, recognizing Kosovo would be political suicide for any Serbian politician, and that the majority of the population is willing to give up on EU membership if the condition is the recognition of Kosovo.
For Tadic, the current state of the dialogue, which is happening almost entirely at the presidential level, only amounts to a simulation of normalizing relations. “We haven’t normalized anything yet — the train situation in February is good proof of that. Even though we have dialogue at the political level, we don’t have any parallel processes in society that deal with reconciliation or with the past.”
She argues that the decision by the political leadership in Belgrade to go to Brussels and partake in negotiations is just a way of engaging with the EU ascension process, and is not indicative of any sincere intention to normalize relations with Kosovo.
Remzije Istrefi, a professor of international human rights law at the University of Prishtina, argued that even on a political level the dialogue is in many ways failing, given the fact that the war crimes, sexual violence, and kidnappings that for so many people are of recent memory are still going undiscussed. She stressed that we cannot expect two societies that have been in conflict to develop a trust in state institutions — what we call ‘democratization’ — when these institutions and international organizations will not talk or deal with the traumas the population has experienced during the war.
“And now we face this condition from the EU which says Kosovar society needs to reconcile in order to be ready for the integration process,” Istrefi stated. “But the process of reconciliation between societies does not hinge on the process of integration. It has to come from the society itself, from the victims, from the families, and the different associations that work in this field. And 18 years after the conflict, we are still not seeing this.”
Rudina Hasimja also took up the question of ‘Europeanization’ as democratization, and what that means for Kosovo and Kosovar citizens in day to day life. “We are attempting to create a democratic state, and the way democracy functions is that you have a political representative who can represent your demands, but you also have some standard of accountability. But if our political elite are not accountable to us, and only accountable to Brussels, then something is wrong with our democratic process.”
Jeton Mehmeti of the GAP Institute echoed Hasimja in arguing that negotiations are happening far from the public eye, leaving civil society generally unaware and confused about what the integration process actually entails. “Any conversation that happens far from public consciousness cannot be effective, because it lacks transparency,” Mehmeti argued.
For Mehmeti, talking about integration is difficult when we are still not sure about the future of the EU itself. The Berlin process is just a project designed to keep hope’s alive, when in reality, Kosovo’s future in the European Union remains unclear.
Albana Merja stated that Kosovo is in a position where it can apply for candidate status with the EU, and that the Kosovo-based Center for Political and Legal Studies, where she works, has been studying potential legal barriers Kosovo faces in achieving this status. What they’ve found is that rather than a legal problem, Kosovo’s case is more of a political one.
“We have to do our homework, and comply with the regulations that the EU has given us. We have to outline what our objectives are, and we have to work twice as hard as other Balkan countries, considering the problem of non-recognition,” Merja argued.
After the panel’s discussion, questions were taken from the audience. Nikola Tomic from University College Dublin noted the panelists’ frequent use of the metaphor of ‘doing homework’ with regards to Kosovo’s engagement with the EU, arguing that it echoed a position of inferiority Balkan states often assume towards Europe that ends up leaving them in the position they’re in. “Imagine a scenario where the EU does not exist,” Tomic posited. “What does Kosovo and Serbia do then?”
Tomic noted that several of the panelists acknowledged that integration isn’t top-down, but bottom-up, and explained that the EU is not that kind of actor — it can only provide money, technical assistance, and the rule of law, which may or may not apply to this region.
Troncota agreed with him and noted that while the EU is often criticized for not being a successful post-conflict mediator, there is no real reason to believe it was ever supposed to be. “The EU started as a bunch of people wanting to put together money — it was very economically oriented — and now we’re complaining that it is not politically oriented enough. Well, should it be?”
Merja responded by noting that on the other hand, the EU has been the only avenue through which Kosovo has been able to talk to Serbia, given that Serbia still considers it a part of its own territory. “Kosovo has asked the EU to play a bigger role in this dialogue and establish conditions, rather than just being a mediator,” Merja stated.
Another audience member, Ngadhnjim Avdyli, asked the panelists why he should feel as if he is a better citizen being part of the EU, rather than just being a part of Kosovo.
Merja respond “membership in the EU doesn’t make you a better citizen. Acceptance and compliance with the regulations that correspond to the EU make you a better citizen. We can have these rules ourselves without need for the EU to tutor us and tell us what to do — but we haven’t yet done this ourselves, and our government has decided that the EU is the best direction for us.”
Tadic echoed Merja, stating that the kind of people and citizens we become once we enter the EU is completely up to us. Membership, in this sense, isn’t necessarily a good thing, but has the potential of being one. On the other hand, we may need to recognize that the EU ascension process isn’t working, that we need something else. She pointed to Serbia as an example, arguing that it has not necessarily become a better country since entering negotiations with the EU, considering that its democratic performance has worsened.
Tadic concluded by reaffirming her belief that Kosovo and Serbia must work together regardless of the EU. “There are many more things that unite Kosovo and Serbia and other Balkan countries than divide us,” she stated. “For example, our corrupt political elite — we basically live in captured states. If we look at the process of privatization, and what foreign investments bring to our countries, we have workers that don’t have any rights, and don’t have any means of fighting for those rights. Public spaces in our cities are taken from us as citizens and given to big business. We need to be discussing these things, and develop an understanding between countries in the Western Balkans, but particularly between Serbia and Kosovo, because we have a common past. We have a Yugoslav past. We had standards, if we’re talking about social rights and workers rights, and we don’t have them anymore. We need to keep that in mind in coming years, and in the context of European integration. Who knows what will happen with the EU in 10 years? But we will still be living here, and we need to find a way to cooperate, regardless of the Brussels dialogue.”
Troncota ended the discussion by quoting one of her students: “We shouldn’t look at EU integration as a prize, but as part of the journey. We need to focus on the journey, and what it actually means to be democratized.”K
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.