Kosovo’s Taken Crucial Step to Join Council of Europe

Kosovo has taken a necessary step to ensuring membership of an important international organisation and the benefits will be manyfold – from joining multiple conventions to taking part in Eurovision.

It is unfair – but Kosovo’s citizens lack one fundamental tool to protect their own human rights from their own unfair, unwilling or uncareful institutions.

This useful tool is used by Europeans from the Balearic Islands to Baku, providing a final legal remedy when everything else fails for various reasons of a nefarious or negligent nature.

I speak of the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, the final court instance available for European citizens whose countries are members of the Council of Europe.

Kosovo is not a member of the Council of Europe, CoE, and has no access to the ECHR, so its citizens are fundamentally “second class” compared to their peers in the Balkans and the wider continent.

Kosovo is also not party to a number of conventions regulated through membership of the CoE and cannot participate or vote in discussions concerning Kosovo in the CoE Parliamentary Assembly.

A popular Latin saying in Central and Eastern Europe, Nihil de nobis, sine nobis – “Nothing about us, without us” – has been Kosovo’s objective for decades when it pertains to discussions, resolutions and decisions made on Kosovo in key multilateral organisations, including the Council of Europe.

Consecutive Kosovo governments since the Declaration of Independence in 2008 have proclaimed the aim of joining the Council of Europe as a full and sovereign member.

In some respects, it is one of the “easier” organisations to join, as its bylaws require a two-thirds majority on all decisions, with no veto powers allowed for any existing members.

As more than two-thirds of its member states do recognise Kosovo as independent, and even some non-recognizers like Greece have in the past voiced support for Kosovo’s accession to multilateral bodies, Kosovo’s potential membership was a subject of serious deliberations for over 15 years, both internally as well in Kosovo’s diplomatic interactions with its allies.

Kosovo is already a member of the IMF, the World Bank, the EBRD, the International Olympic Committee and several regional initiatives.

Plenary chamber of the Council of Europe’s Palace. Photo: Wikipedia

Back in 2011, I led the efforts for Kosovo’s accession process to the CoE from the position of Deputy Foreign Minister in charge of coordinating membership processes to multilaterals. A number of position papers researched by eminent international and foreign affairs experts provided a clear mapping of benefits and the methodology of accession.

It was clear at that time, however, that Kosovo’s accession was not supported by key allies in these early days of Kosovo’s existence as an independent state.

One reason was that while consensus is not a requirement, it was still desirable and had always been used when the CoE agreed to accept new members.

Russia, Serbia and many other countries would have none of it. Some skeptical political parties even within recognizing countries also made a potential vote in the CoE Parliamentary Assembly not quite assured.

The second reason was to give some time to the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, which was focused on a “legally binding agreement of full normalization centered on mutual recognition”, which would unlock Kosovo’s memberships in a less polarized atmosphere.

This being said, Kosovo didn’t sit idly waiting for good omens from the dialogue. From 2011 to 2015, a plan was developed and agreed with allied countries to start a step-by-step process of increasing Kosovo’s interaction with the CoE: applying successfully for membership of specialized independent bodies within the CoE ecosystem such as the Venice Commission and the Council of Europe Development Bank; starting to incorporate unilaterally some of the key conventions on human rights, such as the Istanbul Convention; even opening a Consulate General in Strasbourg to facilitate better and quicker communication between Prishtina and the CoE.

Successful lobbying for Kosovo to become a member of two partial agreements with the CoE, the Venice Commission and CoE Development Bank, in 2014, tested the waters of support and enabled Kosovo to genuinely profit from these bodies.

Kosovo has since benefited from having the Venice Commission as a independent arbiter of the constitutionality of a number of important laws, while some important projects have been financed by the CoE Development Bank, such as a recent credit line dedicated to improving living conditions for vulnerable, marginalised, and low- to middle-income households across the country.

Kosovo’s accession to big international organisations is conditioned on full support by the recognising countries, led by the so-called Quint of the US, France, Germany, UK and Italy.

This support, on the other hand, is conditioned with Kosovo’s active participation in the dialogue with Serbia. Kosovo’s membership chances increased dramatically after the signing of Ohrid agreement in 2023. A key article in this agreement called for Kosovo to have unfettered ability to join international organisations. Russia’s departure from the CoE also improved Kosovo’s numbers in the voting process both at the Parliamentary Assembly and at Committee of Ministers.

Immediately after the Ohrid agreement was reached (though crucially – not signed), Kosovo’s membership got a boost when the CoE Committee of Ministers endorsed Kosovo’s application and processed it to the next formal step, consideration by the CoE Parliamentary Assembly.

The CoE Parliamentary Assembly appointed the former Greek minister Dora Bakoyanis as Rapporteur on Kosovo’s rule of law and other preconditions for its application to pass the final hurdle and a full vote at the PA.

This is where an old legal dispute between the Serbian Orthodox Church monastery in Deçan and the local authorities became extraordinarily important, a sine qua non for Kosovo’s membership perspective.

Since 2016, successive Kosovo governments refused to implement decisions by the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court awarding the monastery the right over 24 hectares of land. Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s party was adamant they will not relent on “giving the land to the monastery” and called the judges of the Constitutional Court as “enablers of [Slobodan] Milosevic‘s decisions”.

As late as 2022, both the Speaker of Parliament, Glauk Konjufca, as well as Minister of Environment, Liburn Aliu, rejected any notion of accepting the rulings of the courts.

Yet, enormous Western pressure combined with the realities of the working agenda of Council of Europe have made PM Kurti bite the bullet.

He has now basically ordered the Cadastral Agency of Kosovo to transfer the disputed land to the Monastery of Deçan. This happened on the margins of the three-day visit by US Envoy Gabriel Escobar. The issue of respecting the property rights of the Decani monks has been high on agenda of the US administration, even entering talking points of President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Blinken throughout the last eight years.

What happens next?

US envoy to the Western Balkan, Gabriel Escobar (L), in a joint press conference with Kosovo President, Vjosa Osmani (R), in Pristina, on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. Photo: BIRNSpecial Rapporteur Bakoyannis will report to the Committee on Equality of the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe in coming days. A positive reaction may be expected. Another Committee on legal affairs already had a note that there are no legal hindrances for Kosovo to become a member of CoE.

If Committees don’t block the process, a full vote may be expected in the Parliamentary Assembly by mid-April. If two-thirds of the MPs represented there vote positively, the issue goes the highest executive body, the Committee of Ministers, who can vote on Kosovo’s accession already in mid-May at their annual meeting in Strasbourg. If there’s good will, Kosovo could become the newest member of CoE by this spring.

The only dilemma is whether two other notable elements in the Bakkoyanis report of February 2024 become hard conditions, namely the issue of the Association of Serbian Majority Municipalities as well as the issue of land expropriation in Serbian-populated municipalities. Neither are really legal criteria, but both have been points of contention between Western supporters of Kosovo and Kurti’s government.

Kosovo citizens will benefit enormously from CoE membership. Kosovo’s diplomacy is currently at its nadir due to a host of misunderstandings and miscommunications, and Kosovo’s government is currently under EU sanctions due to its perceived negative role in escalating the crisis in Kosovo.

Kosovo’s membership of the CoE will bring multiple benefits, from access to the top human rights court to joining dozens of international conventions. There will be one added benefit: the European Broadcasting Union, which organizes Eurovision, is only open to members of Council of Europe. Kosovo’s accession to the CoE will open a path to membership of the EBU and potential participation by Kosovo musicians in the 2025 competition.

Considering the global reach of some of Kosovo-born music stars like Dua Lipa and Rita Ora, it is not far-fetched that Kosovo’s path to Eurivision glory may have been unlocked by the agricultural needs of some isolated monks in a medieval monastery of western Kosovo.

Petrit Selimi is a former Foreign Minister of Republic of KosovoThe opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.