Editor’s note (June 25, 2016): This article was published on Thursday, June 24, 2016, the day of the UK referendum on EU membership. The result of the referendum has since been announced: The UK voted to leave the EU.
Today, on a small group of islands on the far side of the continent, men and women are filing into schools, community centers and sports halls to make a small cross on a piece of paper. As citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland vote in a referendum on whether they wish to remain within the European Union, in their hands rests not only the future of their own country, but with it, potentially the future of the continent as a whole. And Kosovo could be impacted significantly.
The protracted debate over “Brexit” — a British exit from the EU — has received minimal attention in Kosovo’s media in recent months; at face value, the decision of a country almost 2,000 kilometers away on its membership of an international body may appear to have little relevance to Kosovo or its future. But make no mistake, if the UK votes to leave the EU today, it could potentially have a significant impact on Europe’s youngest state.
It may seem unfathomable to the majority of Kosovars, who have traditionally held the European Union up as the ultimate holy grail. As Kosovo, and other countries from the region, try so desperately to be accepted within the EU, why would a state that appears to have everything that others crave for, be flirting so dangerously with the possibility of heading for the exit?
The reasons are many and complex, and have been discussed at length in the British and international media over the past weeks and months. But the reality is, as the UK goes to the polls today, forecasts on the outcome are too close to call and there is a strong chance that come Friday morning, one of the EU’s strongest members will have fired the starting pistol on its withdrawal. So why should Kosovars care?
Short term — losing a powerful ally
Firstly, in the short term, a Brexit would inevitably change Kosovo’s relationship with the UK. Ever since the war in 1998-99, when former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was instrumental in persuading the U.S. to commit ground troops, the UK has consistently been one of Kosovo’s biggest international supporters.
It was amongst the first countries to recognize Kosovo’s independence in February 2008 and played an active role in the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) advisory opinion on Kosovo’s declaration of independence. The UK has also played a key role in lobbying other countries to recognize Kosovo, thereby increasing the country’s legitimacy internationally, and has consistently and vocally championed its cause within the EU, the UN and the Commonwealth. Today, the UK continues to exert it’s influence on the five non-recognizing EU states as well as other countries around the world that have yet to recognize Kosovo’s independence.
And currently, Britain has influence to wield. It is one of the “big four” EU members, is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is at the heart of the Commonwealth and boasts the world’s fifth largest economy. A vote for Brexit would leave the UK marginalized and isolated on the international scene, significantly weaker and with little influence on its former European partners.
Not only would Kosovo lose a powerful supporter within the EU as a body, but the EU’s remaining 27 members are unlikely to take kindly to their rejection; the UK’s ability to influence these countries on a bilateral basis would significantly reduce. This in turn will likely have an impact on the ability of the U.S. — Kosovo’s greatest international supporter — to influence the EU, as it currently relies on the UK to help bridge political and ideological differences with much of mainland Europe.
Within Kosovo, the UK’s role in the “Quint” group — comprising of the five most influential foreign embassies in Prishtina — would be undermined and unsustainable. How could the UK continue to advocate ‘European values’ and working towards Kosovo’s ‘European integration’ at a time when it had itself turned its back on them?
It is also far from certain that even if the UK retained some influence following a Brexit, it would still have the same appetite to lobby strongly for Kosovo. Not only would it be consumed by a messy and protracted battle to re-negotiate and implement its own exit terms and re-align its laws accordingly — something that experts predict could take anywhere between two and 10 years. But there would inevitably be a period of petty small-mindedness, of looking inwards at the country’s own perceived problems and neglecting its role and responsibilities in the rest of the world.
At a time when the UK’s foreign diplomacy would necessarily be focused on negotiating new trade deals with emerging markets (which are unlikely to feature Kosovo anywhere near the top of the list), the economic impact on Kosovo of a Brexit is hard to predict. Many economic experts are warning that if the UK votes to leave the EU today, it will throw the British economy back into recession.
This could spell bad news for Kosovo, as the UK has consistently been one of the top sources of foreign investment in Kosovo in the last decade, second only behind Germany. According to 2013 figures from the Group for Legal and Political Studies, UK money has on average represented 13 percent of Kosovo’s Foreign Direct Investment since 2007. It is also estimated that more than 90 percent of this investment now comes through multilateral bodies, primarily through the EU.
Longer term — Europe in crisis
However, for all the importance of the country’s relationship with the UK, a Brexit could have even more fundamental consequences for Kosovo’s future, and that of the region. With the exceptions of Greenland (upon achieving self-rule) and Algeria (upon gaining independence from France), no country has ever left the EU since it was established as the European Economic Community in 1957, in an attempt to forever avert the ravages of war that had recently torn the continent apart. Many experts believe that Britain’s exit from the EU could trigger what is known as a “domino effect,” with Eurosceptic movements in other member states gaining momentum and also eying up the exits.
At a time when the EU is already deeply wounded by its much maligned handling of the refugee crisis, as borders have gone back up within the Schengen free movement zone, with the Eurozone experiment having been discredited, and with far-right nationalist groups on the rise across the continent, the loss of one of the Union’s most powerful members appears to be a blow that it can ill-afford.
With its credibility at perhaps an all-time low, the very foundations of the EU would be shaken. Reports suggest that close UK allies Sweden and theNetherlands would reconsider their positions in the EU if the UK were to depart. Other members such as Austria — which came within a whisker of voting in a populist, Eurosceptic president last month — Denmark and the Czech Republic could also struggle to contain growing demand for a renegotiation of their own relationships with Europe. Even in France, a founding member of the Union and one of its “big four,” there is growing hostility towards Europe, with a recent poll suggesting that only 38 percent of the population have a favorable view of the EU, down 17 percent from last year. As the clamour for the exits grows, it could conceivably spread like contagion throughout a Union that is already limping badly.
What would all this mean for Kosovo? At the very least, a Brexit vote would trigger a period of crisis within the EU, as member states tried to reassure themselves, each other and their citizens, that the Union has a future. In these circumstances, with leading members Germany, Italy and France trying to persuade others not to jump, it would threaten the long held belief in further expansion that Kosovo and its Balkan neighbors are so reliant on. Not only would the EU be deeply distracted trying to sort out its own internal mess, but ploughing full steam ahead on admitting new members is hardly likely to appease Eurosceptic voters in individual member countries.
However if the worst case scenario happens, and other countries begin to follow the UK out the door, then it could ultimately spell the end of the EU, at least as we know it; some analysts predict that it could be realigned to leave a deeply integrated inner core and an association of looser, satellite members, while others predict that it could completely unravel. For Kosovo and other Balkan countries, which has long focused their entire foreign policies on EU accession, this would spell disaster.
The gravity of this scenario appears to be recognized by the region’s leaders, with Albania’s prime minister Edi Rama yesterday writing a plea to the Times of London for Britain not to leave the EU. Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci also issued his own warning on the potential consequences of a Brexit, shortly after being appointed: “If there’s no EU integration, the region might withdraw to nationalism and the idea of redrawing borders. This will cause more problems, more crisis and more suffering, beyond any of our abilities to comprehend.”
For once, Thaci is right. Kosovo has no plan B. There is no backup plan, no other iron in the fire.
Ever since Kosovo was included in the European Commission’s 2003 declaration in Thessaloniki that gave its unequivocal support to the ‘European perspective’ of Western Balkan countries, EU accession has been the primary driving force behind both domestic and foreign policy.
It is the carrot of integration that led to EU mediated talks with Serbia in an attempt to ‘normalize’ relations and to the subsequent 2013 Brussels Agreement; that has led to agreements by both Kosovo and its neighbors to tackle corruption, organized crime, the rule of law and to develop “good neighborly relations” through increased international cooperation; that has demanded a focus on upholding human rights. If the EU were to implode and the carrot taken away following a UK Brexit vote, the vacuum left behind, not just for Kosovo, but for the whole region, would be cavernous.
True European values
But whether or not the UK votes to leave the EU today, the debate over Brexit should serve as a wake-up call to Kosovo, where Europe is often put up on a pedestal. Setting aside the tendency for scaremongering, populism and xenophobia that have too often blighted the UK debate, beneath it there is a genuine case for being critical of the EU. It is bloated, over-bureaucratic, has a democratic deficit, and has been ineffective in dealing with the ongoing refugee crisis. But in Kosovo, where there is broad support for EU accession across the political spectrum — as well as from the vast majority of the population — to criticize the EU is too often to be labelled ‘anti-European.’
There is no conflict between being pro-European, and at the same time to ask questions, to criticize and to hold to account. After all, if there really is such a thing as ‘European values,’ these would be right at the top.
As a proud British citizen and a proud European, I will be casting my vote in the UK referendum today. And for the sake of my own country, for Europe, but also for Kosovo and for this region, I will be voting to ‘remain.’
Former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, once famously said: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” The same could be said of the EU — it is not in anyone’s interest to return to a pre-EU world.