In-depth | Foreign Relations

The Kosovo shaped pebble in Spain’s shoe

By - 28.08.2020

Are Spain-Kosovo relations beginning to thaw?

In the late 1990s, while still in his 20s, Pedro Sánchez used to spend his days off playing basketball with Spanish soldiers in Sarajevo. 

His day job was as chief of staff to the UN high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and involved tasks such as negotiating details for car license plate agreements and agreeing a mutually accepted flag and anthem, amongst others. The war that had ravaged the former Yugoslav republic for years was over, but another was already afflicting nearby Kosovo. 

He could hardly have envisaged that two decades later, Kosovo would represent an unresolved issue in his country’s foreign policy agenda. And as Spain’s recently re-elected prime minister, the head of the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), would be ultimately responsible for setting the course. 

The “Kosovo issue” would hardly be top of his list of priorities, which involved responding to a new global pandemic sweeping around the world, but it would be an issue demanding his consideration nonetheless.

On May 6, 2020, having just won a narrow parliamentary vote to extend Spain’s COVID-19 State of Emergency, Sánchez prepared himself for the latest EU-Western Balkans Summit. It should have been taking place in Zagreb, but instead regional and EU leaders were sitting in their own homes and offices dialling into a video conference call.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez took part in the virtual EU-Western Balkans Summit in May 2020, two years after his predecessor boycotted it due to Kosovo’s attendance. Photo: Pool Moncloa / JM Cuadrado.

As agreed: no flags, no country names. But this was still progress. 

Two years earlier, in Sofia, then Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy, from the now opposition People’s Party (PP), had refused to sit in the same meeting as the Kosovar delegation. It marked a low point in Spain-Kosovo relations, which have often been barely existent at official level since the latter declared independence in 2008 and the former refused to recognize it. 

In (virtual) Zagreb 2020, Mr. Pedro Sánchez, PM of Spain, was there. And Mr. Hashim Thaçi, president of Kosovo, was there too. Spanish and Kosovar authorities were sharing a meeting, and that was newsworthy. 

But was this a sign of a shift in Spanish foreign policy toward Kosovo and a break from the past? Or simply another come-and-go story to get a few clicks?

Beyond recognition

To comprehend the present, we first need to revisit the past. The reasons for Spain’s non-recognition of Kosovo have to be understood, at least partly, within Spain’s domestic political context.

Back in 2008, Kosovo’s independence was declared three weeks before Spanish general elections, in which incumbent PSOE candidate José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was running for — and would ultimately win — a second term. 

Four years earlier, in 2004, Zapatero’s victorious campaign had voiciferously championed respect for international law, mostly to criticize the sitting PM, José María Aznar, and his party’s support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. 


Spanish voices from across the ideological spectrum have discredited analogies that compare Kosovo to Catalonia.

Over the years, the natural fading of this episode in collective memory may have allowed a rethink on the role of Spain in the Western Balkans, particularly in relation to Kosovo, where Spain still played an active role at the time through its KFOR soldiers, based in Istog. 

But the rise of Catalan separatism in local debates — and particularly the utilization of the Kosovar self-determination experience by Catalan pro-independence parties — discouraged any dispassionate approach toward relations. 

Today, Spanish voices from across the ideological spectrum have discredited analogies that compare the situation in Kosovo to that of Catalonia; the rejection of this comparison is even more palpable in Prishtina, where those well versed in Spanish politics stress the differences between the Spanish model of autonomous communities — in which Catalonia holds a special status with significant powers — and the systematic repression in Kosovo under Slobodan Milošević’s Yugoslavia. 

But the analogy continues to be made overtly by political parties that promote Catalan independence who compare Catalonia’s plight to other independentist movements around the globe, from Scotland to New Caledonia

After a 2017 referendum on Catalonian independence was ruled illegal by Spanish courts, the current president of the Government of Catalonia, Quim Torrá, referred to both Kosovo and Slovenia as inspiring models for achieving their own independence. Such analogies fueled public fears of a “Balkanized” Spain, adding to the political taboo of Spain supporting Kosovo’s statehood. 

Political analyst and author Miguel Roán believes that Spain has struggled to work out a role in the region since Kosovo declared independence. Photo courtesy of Miguel Roán.

Miguel Roán, a Spanish political analyst who wrote a 2018 book based on his decade-long personal experiences living in Belgrade and traveling around the region, is among the most respected commentators on the issue. Roán believes that such fears stem from most people in Spain having few contacts with the region, and therefore little informed knowledge of it.

He says that words such as “independence” or “unilateral declaration” have a stronger meaning in themselves than the specific particularities, hence the standard refrain of Spain having a “respectable and coherent position of not recognizing unilateral declarations of independence” permeating so successfully in Spanish public opinion.

“It’s less about what actually happened, but about what people believe happened,” he says. “Voters don’t have time to analyze the history of Kosovo and Serbia relations and many politicians — like Catalan separatists — take advantage of this.”

Roán says that throughout the Balkan region there is plenty of affection toward Spain, but Spain has never worked out how to deal with it. He says that a lack of Spanish geopolitical interest in the region means that “Kosovo doesn’t represent a direct benefit,” and that ever since Spain withdrew its troops in 2010, “the Spanish position has been more centred on wading through the diplomatic hits rather than on anticipating and managing them.” 

Spain held one of the most hardline positions toward Kosovo across the continent between 2008 and 2018.

Ruth Ferrero-Turrión, a respected scholar in Eastern European Politics who teaches at the Complutense University of Madrid, agrees that a big part of the problem is historical disinterest and unawareness. 

She believes that Spain’s approach to Kosovo should be viewed in a more complex fashion than simply recognition or non-recognition, highlighting that there are plenty of ways to engage with a state with limited recognition beyond explicitly recognizing its sovereignty. 

In recent publications addressing Spain’s attitude toward Kosovo — mostly in comparison with that of other EU states, including the other four non-recognizers — Ferrero-Turrión points out that Spain held one of the most hardline positions across the continent between 2008 and 2018. 

She insists that even if Spain continues not to recognize Kosovo, that shouldn’t rule out opportunities for collaboration, since countries like Greece have developed commercial ties and official delegations in Kosovo despite not recognizing it. 

For the most part since Kosovo declared independence, that isn’t the route that Spain has chosen, instead largely opting to have as little engagement as possible.

Signs of change

Since Rajoy’s refusal to share a meeting with the Kosovar delegation in Bulgaria in May 2018, there have been occasional moments that indicate an — albeit limited — thawing in Spain’s previously uncompromising approachInternational  to Kosovo. 

These have generally been a pragmatic reaction to circumstances, rather than a concerted change of foreign policy and can again in part be explained by domestic Spanish politics.

One of the most discussed was the Spanish government’s decision in November 2018 to allow Kosovo athletes to participate under their own flag in sporting competitions on Spanish soil. This decision followed a warning from the International Olympic Committee that Spain should not be allowed to host major international sporting events until they allowed Kosovars to compete on equal terms. 

Nearly two years later, the sporting arena remains the only sphere where the official symbols of Kosovo and Spain stand alongside each other. When PM Sánchez attended the EU-Western Balkans Summit earlier this year alongside representatives from Kosovo, it was only after securing assurances that no national symbols or country names would appear.

Some media and Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) heralded the development as a lift on Spain’s veto over Kosovar delegations, but it was not accompanied by any official announcement of such a decision.

In fact, the position was not even a completely new one. Spanish representatives had previously shared meetings with Kosovar delegations, most recently in 2010 at the EU Western Balkans summit in Sarajevo.

The Spanish government insists that nothing has changed.

In the interim, Spain’s national administration has changed a number of times, and since 2015 difficulties in governance and government formation have led to four general elections in as many years. 

Rajoy’s PP — which came to power in 2011 and remained there until being ousted by a no-confidence motion in 2018 — was replaced by Pedro Sánchez and the center-left PSOE in 2019. 

Since January this year, PSOE has been in a minority coalition government with the left wing Unidas Podemos — Spain’s first coalition government since the 1930s. The formation of that coalition relied on the abstention of a number of parties that support Catalonian independence, leaving Sánchez open to opposition accusations that he partners with parties that aim to “break up Spain.”

The relative instability in Spanish domestic politics — and the need to deal with other more pressing domestic and international concerns — mean few expect a radical shift in Spain’s approach to Kosovo any time soon. A Podemos spokesperson told K2.0 that the party did not want to comment on the issue, while the Spanish government insists that nothing has changed.

In a statement provided to K2.0, Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs affirmed that Spain has not changed its official position toward Kosovo despite its participation in the EU-Western Balkans Summit. The Ministry insists Spain’s policy of “not recognizing Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence” is “based on international law and respects Resolution Number 1244 of the UN Security Council,” a reference to the resolution in 1999 that helped bring an end to the war in Kosovo. 

Salvador Llaudes, an expert on EU affairs, who has previously worked as a researcher at the Madrid-based think tank Real Instituto Elcano and recently worked as a senior advisor to Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says that the Spanish position “has proven to be perfectly valid” because “it has a legal basis and its position is not isolated from the rest of world.” 

But he also says he has witnessed how “Spanish authorities have slowly started an internal debate on what role they want to play in the region,” and he believes it is important for Kosovar authorities “to find ways in which Spanish officials can talk comfortably” instead of demanding immediate recognition from Spain.

According to Ruth Ferrero-Turrión, this kind of symbolic progress is a realistic prospect in the immediate future of Kosovo-Spain relations until Kosovo fully normalizes relations with Serbia. She points to slight shifts that were “unthinkable three years ago” such as university exchanges, private business delegations and informal personal meetings between public representatives. 

“We might be open to a scenario of more flexibility and some degree of understanding, but it will happen through secondary channels,” she says.

Eastern European politics expert Ruth Ferrero-Turrión suggests that even without Spain recognizing Kosovo, the two countries should be looking at developing practical collaborations. Photo: Complutense University of Madrid.

The academic remembers that she didn’t like the process by which Kosovo ultimately ended up declaring independence unilaterally in 2008, but she now recognizes that there have been a “series of milestones” that show the process is “irreversible.” 

However, she says that “recognizing Kosovo now wouldn’t make much sense if that won’t help in the definitive solution” of Kosovo’s status.

The “definitive solution” she refers to is linked to the ongoing dialogue process between Kosovo and Serbia, which in EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell now has a Spaniard at its very center. 

When he was nominated for the position in July 2019, some observers expressed skepticism about having Borrell in such a pivotal position, given that he is from non-recognizing Spain. But others have suggested that his origins may give him an advantage in his role as negotiations facilitator since he can understand how damaging unresolved issues between Kosovo and Serbia are to the EU. 

As a Catalan himself, and one who fiercely opposed Catalan independence during his previous role as Spain’s minister of foreign affairs, prioritizing the normalization of Kosovo-Serbia relations could even serve as a means of delegitimizing separatist claims and analogies between the Catalan and Kosovar cases.

Indeed, Borrell has attempted to instill new life into the “normalization” process since taking on the role in December 2019, and one of his first initiatives was to pay an official visit to Prishtina.

Whether the results of the dialogue process and any potential future agreement between Belgrade and Prishtina would signal an official change of stance on Kosovo’s status from Madrid is a matter of speculation since there are still so many uncertainties and moving parts. 

But Borrell’s answer when previously asked this question in his role as Spanish foreign minister, hinted that in such circumstances it would be hard for Spain to maintain its current position: “We can’t be more Catholic than the Pope.”K

Feature image: Juan Manuel Montoro / K2.0.