In-depth | Recognition

Recognition denied: Spain

By - 07.11.2016

Five-part series on the non-recognizing EU states.

When Kosovo declared independence on February 17, 2008, attention swiftly turned to foreign parliaments and assemblies across the world to see who would recognize Europe’s newest state. By the end of 2008, Kosovo had the recognition of the United States, Turkey and all but five of the member states of the European Union — the exceptions being Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Greece and Cyprus.

Eight and a half years later, while 112 nations worldwide have recognized Kosovo as an independent state, it is still not a member of the United Nations, and the same five EU members have yet to recognize Kosovo. This state of partial recognition has left Kosovo in something of a state of purgatory, often complicating admission into international organizations and the usual benefits of statehood.

Towards independence (1)

MARCH 24, 1999:
NATO launches an aerial bombing campaign against the Milosevic regime in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The military intervention is an attempt to end the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo and concludes with a ground operation in June of the same year which drives Milosevic’s state apparatus out of Kosovo.

JUNE 10, 1999:
The United Nations Security Council adopts resolution 1244. The resolution places Kosovo under an interim UN administration, with duties performed by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). UNMIK is also tasked with establishing provisional institutions of local self government and facilitating a political process to determine Kosovo’s future status.

Opposition to Kosovo’s independence is most fiercely advocated by Serbia (with strong support from Russia), who insist that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration breaches international law and violates its territorial sovereignty. Although in 2010 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an advisory opinion that Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not violate international law, a common factor behind the five EU non-recognizers’ position is often viewed as being based on internal concerns.

Relations between Kosovo and each of the five members of the EU yet to recognize the state have developed individually since 2008, with varying results. In this five part series, K2.0 looks at the internal and external factors that have affected diplomatic ties between these five nations and Kosovo.

Kosovo and Spain

A day after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, Spain’s then minister for foreign affairs, Miguel Angel Moratinos, attended a meeting held in Brussels that gathered foreign ministers from all members of the European Union. He spoke to reporters outside regarding the news emerging from Europe’s south-eastern corner, giving a clear and direct message. “The government of Spain will not recognize the unilateral act proclaimed yesterday by the Assembly of Kosovo.”

Moratinos was part of a cabinet led by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), who remained in power until 2011. A shift from PSOE to Mariano Rajoy’s right wing People’s Party (PP) did nothing to change Spain’s position on Kosovo. While Spanish politics has experienced longstanding friction between political forces over internal issues, on the political status of Kosovo they have all stood united and consistent.

Guillermo Altares is the editor of a Sunday supplement for Spain’s best selling newspaper, El Pais, and worked as a reporter in Kosovo after the war. He sees little difference within the Spanish political spectrum when it comes to the issue of Kosovo’s independence.

“A socialist [government] decided to withdraw Spanish forces in 2009 because they didn’t want their troops [in Kosovo] after the unilateral declaration of independence,” Altares explained — 600 Spanish troops were part of the KFOR service at the time of withdrawal. “But the right wing government of the People’s Party have also said that they are not going to recognize the independence of Kosovo.”

Towards independence (2)

The UN issue a set of standards that have to be met by Kosovo’s Provisional Institutions of Self-Government before Kosovo’s final status will be discussed. Twenty two months later a UN commissioned report states that further progress in standards can not be made until Kosovo is clear about its future status.

Kosovo’s future status is discussed at a meeting in Vienna by representatives from Kosovo and Serbia, with the negotiations mediated by UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari. However, after a number of meetings no agreement is able to be reached, leading Ahtisaari himself to formulate a plan aimed at resolving the deadlock.

Opposition to Kosovo also exists outside of Spain’s two traditional governing parties. Podemos, a rising leftist party who came third in Spain’s most recent elections and are well represented in the European parliament, have also been outspoken on the subject.

During a European Parliament debate in March 2015, the leader of the party, Pablo Iglesias, described Kosovo as a ‘kind of narco-state backed by the U.S.’ and stated that “the process of integration of Kosovo into the EU would mean recognition of Kosovo; this is contrary to international law and would … hinder reconciliation and stability.”

Spain’s separatist regions

Spain’s rigid position towards Kosovo is largely based on the fear of a “domino effect” that recognition of Kosovo’s independence could cause in the Basque Country and Catalonia; separatist regions of Spain who could also unilaterally pronounce their own independence.

Spain’s decentralized power structure means that both Catalonia and the Basque Country enjoy an autonomous position within Spain’s kingdom. As with all regions of Spain, both areas have their own regional institutions such as a separate assembly, government and flag and they also have their own official languages in addition to Spanish. However, large elements of the population within both regions still seek full independence.

The Basque Country lies in the north of Spain, and for decades was synonymous with an armed separatist organization, ETA, who often resorted to violent attacks to achieve their goal of Basque independence. However, the group announced a cessation of all its armed activities in 2011 and lately the secessionist aspirations proclaimed for decades seem to have quietened. Commentators have explained this phenomenon as a result of the good economic performance and growth the region has recently experienced.

Media attention on the Basque Country’s separatist ambitions seems to have been repositioned onto Catalonia in recent years. In 2014, the regional government of Catalonia held a referendum that saw 80 percent of voters supporting secession. The referendum was fiercely condemned by the Spanish government, who considered it a political move solely designed to create divisions and heighten political tensions.

“Eight years since Kosovo became independent, the Catalan question has become even worse. That’s why Spain does not want to say anything about Kosovo’s independence.”

Guillermo Altares.

The Spanish constitutional court ruled that Catalan secession was unconstitutional. However, in recent months the separatist movement in Catalonia has spoken of moving forward with secession from Spain unilaterally, dismissing this ruling in the process. In September 2016, pro-independence Catalans held rallies calling for a date to be set in 2017 for a referendum on independence.

The increased discussion of the question of Catalonia has kept the Spanish position on Kosovo frozen in place. “Eight years since Kosovo became independent, the Catalan question has become even worse,” Altares explained. “That’s why Spain does not want to say anything about Kosovo’s independence.”

For Altares, comparisons between Kosovo and Catalonia are not accurate, and the issues differ substantially. “I think that Kosovo has nothing to do with Catalonia,” he told K2.0. “In Kosovo there were killings, [unlawful] prosecutions, torture and apartheid against Albanians by [the] Milosevic [regime]. An incredible amount of people were forced to leave because they feared for their life. In Catalonia nothing of this [sort] happened.”

Despite these seeming distinctions between Spain’s separatist regions and Kosovo, the Spanish state has continually resolved to label the unilateral step taken by Kosovo as a violation of international law. The Spanish authorities have insisted that a secession requires either an agreement between both parties, or a UN Security Council resolution.

These questions over violations of international law were thought to be coming to an end in 2010, when the ICJ issued its advisory decision stating that Kosovo’s declaration of independence had not broken international law.

The ICJ said that Kosovo is a special case and that there is no similar case to that of Kosovo,” said Altares, hinting at the sui generis character of Kosovo. But the position of Spain has remained unchanged, even after the UN court issued this advisory decision.

A lack of interest

Altares believes that Spain’s unchangeable position towards Kosovo is also partly due to a lack of strategic and geopolitical interest. “Spain’s focus is much more towards Latin America,” he told said. “Because [Spain] does not have a lot of economic interchanges with Kosovo.”

Towards independence (3)

APRIL 3, 2007:
After further meetings and negotiations with both sides, Ahtisaari presents his plan for the future status of Kosovo to the UN Security Council. The Ahtisaari Plan is quickly approved by authorities in Prishtina and statements of support for its findings are issued by the United States and in the European Parliament. However, a rejection from the government of Serbia and strong Russian opposition prevents the plan from being adopted.

FEBRUARY 17, 2008:
Faced with no progress in negotiations, the Assembly of Kosovo unilaterally declares itself independent as the Republic of Kosovo, though Kosovar Serbs boycott the Assembly meeting. The Assembly obligate themselves to follow the provisions outlined in the Ahtisaari Plan, with its recommendations forming the basis for Kosovo’s constitution. The Kosovar institutions also agree to the deployment of over 2,000 corps from the EU Rule of law mission (EULEX), to monitor and assist the judicial system. The mission is still operational up until 2018.

While other states that do not recognize Kosovo have established relations with Prishtina by opening Liaison Offices in Kosovo, Spain has totally ignored any attempts at creating a diplomatic relationship.

Official exchanges between Kosovar and Spanish delegations have been non-existent to date and travel restrictions imposed by Spanish authorities have also prevented any kind of bilateral cultural exchange between members of the countries’ civil societies.

Kosovars, who remain the only citizens of the Western Balkans excluded from visa liberalisation in the Schengen area, are restricted from travelling into Spanish territory even when granted a visa to travel within the rest of the common visa-policy zone.

The Kosovar Foundation for Open Society (KFOS) is an NGO in Prishtina that has been engaged in establishing links between Kosovo and the five non recognising EU members, as well as with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, through its program “Connecting with Europe.” The main focus of the program is an exchange of members of civil society, mutual visits of delegations and cultural exchanges. Spain however, seems to have been almost hermetically closed to any possible cooperation.

Denion Galimuna, a coordinator at KFOS, told K2.0 that “Spain is nearly impossible to reach, and communication almost does not exist, even between the civil society sector, as visas are not being granted to go there.”

In October 2016, a delegation of Kosovo policewomen were refused a Spanish visa, even though they were invited to participate in a congress held by the International Association of Women Police in Barcelona.

Kosovo politicians have instead used multilateral meetings to meet with Spanish officials. At a celebration for the widening of the Panama Canal in June 2016, Kosovo’s current president Hashim Thaci suddenly announced that Spain will soon recognize Kosovo after he met with King Felipe VI of Spain; seemingly attempting to widen Kosovo-Spain relations along with the canal. His statement though, was never confirmed by his Spanish counterpart.

The Spanish stance has also been resolute in preventing any Kosovar initiatives from becoming members of numerous international organizations, even cultural and scientific bodies.

Spain backed the group of states that opposed Kosovo’s membership to UNESCO in November 2015. During the committee’s discussion of the merits of Kosovo’s application to UNESCO at the organization’s headquarters in Paris, Spanish ambassador to UNESCO Maria Teresa Lizaranzu called for “the full respect of the principle of territorial integrity.”

Struggle for recognitions

AUGUST 2008 - JULY 2010:
Serbia responds to Kosovo’s declaration of independence by seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice, asking if it had violated international law. Two years later the conclusion was clear, though not a binding-ruling: the declaration had not violated international law.

APRIL 2013:
Two years after the beginning of a technical and political dialogue, Kosovo and Serbia sign an accord, considered by many as “a landmark agreement” to help normalize relations. Point 14 of the accord states that “it is agreed that neither side will block, or encourage others to block the other side's progress in their respective EU paths.”

DECEMBER 2014 - MAY 2016:
Kosovo find sporting success in December 2014 and again in May 2016, being admitted as a full member of the International Olympic Committee and FIFA respectively. However, in November 2015 Kosovo fails by three votes to be admitted into UNESCO, after a state funded campaign against Kosovo’s membership is run by Serbia.

JULY 22, 2016:
Suriname become the 112th country to recognize Kosovo as an independent state in July 2016. However, Russia, China, India, Brazil and more than 80 other states worldwide are still yet to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty.

Spain’s current political crisis

For the majority of 2016, Spanish politics has been characterized by another internal challenge when divisions between political parties in Spain led to a failure to form a government for more than 10 months.

However, Spain’s long standing political impasse seems to finally have an end in sight. On Oct 23, the Socialist Party voted not to block the efforts of Mariano Rajoy of the Popular Party, who is set to become prime minister of Spain once again, avoiding a third set of elections within a year.

With the internal deadlock finally over, questions of foreign policy can once again gain prominence within Spanish political discussion, though attitudes to Kosovo are unlikely to change.

As recently as April 2016, the Commission of Foreign Affairs of the Spanish Parliament rejected a motion presented by Catalonian party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC — Republican Left of Catalonia) on Kosovo’s recognition. The motion demanded that the Spanish government begin diplomatic ties with Kosovo, requested approval for an Action Plan for Visa Liberalization within the EU framework, and urged the government to work towards Kosovo’s incorporation into international organizations. It received 30 votes against and only 12 in favour.

As discussions involving separatist movements in Catalonia intensify, it is hard to see a change in Spain’s position arising any time soon. “When Kosovo is recognized by Serbia, Spain will recognize Kosovo,” Altares concluded.K

Image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

  • 14 Aug 2020 - 21:40 | AndyT:

    I love Spain as a country but their stance on Kosovo is shameful. A lot of countries have separatist issues and have still recognised the independence of Kosovo. The U.K. has Scotland (and to a degree Wales), Belgium has Flanders (and perhaps Wallonia), France has Corsica and Brittany, Canada has Quebec and Somalia has the de facto independence of Somaliland and yet all these countries and others have recognised Kosovo. Perhaps the only EU nation I can understand for obvious reasons is Cyprus. I hope things change soon!