Last Sunday (Dec. 4) saw two more globally significant political events in a year that has been full of them. The Italian electorate emphatically rejected their prime minister’s proposals for constitutional reform, leading him to resign, whilst far right candidate Norbert Hofer once again strongly challenged Alexander Van der Bellen for the presidency of Austria. Meanwhile, France is preparing for presidential elections in the spring of 2017, with another far right candidate Marine Le Pen expected to make the run off.
This year’s endless political upheaval and increase in support for far-right groups and other politicians with less supportive stances towards Kosovo have put the continuation of support for Europe’s newest republic from its traditional allies into question. It may well reshape the relationship between Kosovo and those states who have previously been the strongest supporters of its independence.
Despite last week seeing Singapore become the 113th country to recognize Kosovo’s independence, maintaining support from the major powers who have already recognized Kosovo’s sovereignty is still crucial for the Balkan country.
Pro Kosovo voices fading in France
In early 2008, France was one of Kosovo’s biggest supporters, recognizing it as a sovereign state almost immediately after the authorities in Prishtina declared independence. “I have the honor of informing you that France, in full accord with the declaration of the European Union, and following the resolution of the Kosovo parliament on February 17, 2008, from now on recognizes Kosovo as a sovereign and independent state,” France’s then president Nicolas Sarkozy told his Kosovar counterpart in an official note.
In the almost nine years since, France have proactively supported Kosovo’s initiatives to become part of international organizations and have advocated for Kosovo’s future being within the European Union. However, recent developments in French politics are leaving room for serious doubts over whether the same support towards Kosovo will continue in the next French presidency.
In November this year, Sarkozy once again tried to secure the nomination of the center-right Republican Party in 2017’s upcoming presidential election. This time, the supporter of Kosovo was eliminated in the first round of voting, coming third behind Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon, who had been expected to come third in the first round of voting. In a runoff between Juppe and Fillon a week later, Fillon comfortably won the nomination of the conservative Republicans.
Fillon contradicts the traditional French position on Kosovo’s right to independence. In one of the final debates in the runoff, when discussing the Russian occupation of Crimea, Fillon stated that he believes the question of Kosovo’s independence is ‘debatable,’ and described it as ‘a violation of international law.’ Fillon has often been described as a ‘Russophile’ in matters of foreign policy.
Although a member of the same party as Sarkozy, it is clear that Fillon takes a different line on Kosovo, despite being Sarkozy’s prime minister when Kosovo declared independence. However, it should be noted that the presidential system of France gives no prerogatives to its prime minister on decisions on French foreign policy.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National has also been confirmed as a nominee to run for the French presidency. Le Pen has not mentioned Kosovo in any of her recent speeches, but under her father’s leadership, her party rallied against NATO’s intervention in the region in 1999. She is also well known for her anti-European position, consistently questioning the raison d’etre of the EU, a stance at odds with Kosovo’s longtime proclaimed aspiration to join it.
On the other hand, Francois Hollande of the French socialists and the current president of France, announced that he is dropping out of France’s presidential race on Dec. 1. His shock announcement has created more uncertainty and revealed the inner crisis of France’s Socialist Party, who according to polls and analysts seem to have very little chance of receiving a new mandate from the French voters. Current prime minister, Manuel Valls, is expected to be the socialist nomination for the presidency.
April’s election and May’s decisive runoff will reveal who will lead France for the next five years. However, currently the polls favor Fillon and Le Pen to make the runoff, and in regard to Kosovo, neither would ensure a continuity of the supportive relations France has offered since independence.
While repealing France’s recognition of Kosovo seems an unlikely step if Fillon becomes president, France’s support for Kosovo internationally might be seriously questioned. Kosovo’s failed bid for UNESCO membership, during which Poland abstained in the voting is a prominent example of how a country that has recognized Kosovo’s independence can take other stances in the future.
Populists on the rise
Another rising voice with skeptical views in regard to Kosovo is Austrian Norbert Hofer, who has spoken out against Kosovo’s membership in international organizations. Hofer is a far-right politician who was defeated by independent candidate Van der Bellen in the re-run of the presidential runoff election held on Sunday, Dec. 4. Though Austria has typically been a staunch supporter of Kosovo’s independence and Kosovo’s European path, the 46 percent of the vote Hofer achieved in the election is a clear sign that his views have found support from large swathes of the Austrian electorate.
Dec. 4 also saw a referendum take place in Italy. It had been called by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who was seeking to amend the constitution, intending to strengthen the central government and weaken the senate. The Italian electorate rejected the amendments, with the ‘no’ vote reaching 60 percent, leading Renzi to resign.
While the amendments received opposition from across the political spectrum, the populist Five Stars Movement and the far right group Lega Nord, have capitalized most on the defeat of Renzi. In the wake of the results, a tweet by the leader of Lega Nord, Matteo Salvini, heaped praise on his group alongside other rising stars of the right, including Le Pen. “The Italians have disavowed the EU and Renzi. We must listen to this thirst for freedom of nations,” Le Pen replied via Twitter.
Populist parties such as Lega Nord and Le Pen’s Front National have also been boosted this year by Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the U.S. elections in November, which Le Pen described as a “sign of hope.” Trump’s victory is another factor causing uncertainty for the future of international relations, especially in the Balkans. Were it Hilary Clinton heading for the White House, not many changes would be anticipated regarding the region, and Kosovo in particular, but it remains uncertain what approach Trump’s administration will choose to adopt in the Balkan peninsula.
However, Trump’s association with Putin, who hailed his victory, has led many to predict an improvement in relations between the U.S. and Russia. Putin has been a long time ally of Serbia and has often spoken against Kosovo’s independence and any strengthening of ties between the two superpowers may impact on U.S. policy in the Balkans.
Brexit and growing euroscepticism
Another factor with a huge impact on upcoming international relations is the much discussed ‘Brexit,’ which has paved the way for increased euroscepticism across Europe, with the Netherlands considered as the member most likely to join Britain in departing the EU. Europhobe Geert Wilders has led the calls for a Dutch referendum on the subject, and polls show he is increasingly getting more and more support from the Dutch people.
Despite this increasing aversion to the EU from its existing members, on his last tour to the Balkans, British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, promised to support both Kosovo and Serbia in their bids to join. Paradoxically, Johnson, who was one of the key voices in the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign and helped the Brexit vote to victory, gave firm support to Kosovo’s European path.
With European integration a key element of Kosovo’s political future, the rising euroscepticism within key EU member states is a concern, even if they continue to support Kosovo’s entry. Couple this with the rise of politicians with far more skeptical views towards Kosovo in states that have traditionally been key Kosovar allies and it paints a picture of a challenging period ahead for Kosovo on the international scene.K
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.