Kosovo’s application to become a member of Europe’s oldest Human Rights organisation is a moment of truth for many European countries which have long claimed to support Kosovo’s European aspirations.
It is striking how differently Russia and Kosovo have been treated by the governments of Council of Europe member states in recent years.
Russia, a nuclear superpower with a population of 146 million and a landmass stretching across nine time zones, joined the Council of Europe in 1996. As a Council of Europe member, Russia waged war in Chechnya (1999-2000), invaded Georgia (2008), annexed Crimea (2014), triggered war in Eastern Ukraine (from 2014), bombed civilians in Syria (from 2015) and then launched an assault against the whole of Ukraine in February 2022.
Kosovo, one of Europe’s smallest democracies with a population of less than 2 million, with a territory that is 0.05 percent that of Russia, declared its independence in February 2008. This was recognised by a large majority of members of the Council of Europe (34 of 46).
Unlike Russia, Kosovo has seen peaceful transfers of political power following free and fair elections. Unlike Russia, independent Kosovo never had political prisoners. Unlike Russia, it has not waged any wars.
And yet, for many years, Kosovo governments have been actively discouraged from applying for Council of Europe membership by other members. The result: Kosovo remains outside. It is today the only European democracy which is not yet a member of the Council of Europe.
On 12 May 2022, Kosovo’s foreign minister submitted Kosovo’s application in Strasbourg. The next formal step, moving Kosovo’s application from the Committee of Ministers – the 46 governments – to PACE – the Parliamentary Assembly – should not have taken long. It should have happened on 20 May 2022 at the meeting of foreign ministers of the Committee of Ministers in Turin.
At that meeting, many stated their support, including German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock who said:
“It is crucial to strengthen our cooperation with those countries that Russia is trying to destabilise, such as Moldova, Georgia and also the Western Balkan countries. My visit to the Western Balkans showed me how important it is to strengthen our cooperation with these states now. Therefore, I would like to send a clear message to our partners in Kosovo: We fully support your wish to become a member of the Council of Europe family. Of course, it is also clear that for such a significant step the usual procedure must be applied.”
But the foreign ministers did not take the decision to ask PACE for an opinion on Kosovo’s application. The issue had not been put on the agenda of the Turin meeting. Neither was it put on the agenda at the subsequent Committee of Ministers meetings at deputy (ambassador) level on 1 June and 15 June.
In principle, any one country can insist that an item should “by reason of its political importance be dealt with by the Committee of Ministers meeting at ministerial level” (article 2, Rules of Procedure for the meetings of the Ministers’ Deputies). This would effectively postpone a decision to the next meeting at ministerial level, scheduled for May 2023. However, the other members can reject this and force a vote if they do not agree on the “political importance” of the item. This has already happened in a case related to the admission of Kosovo to the Venice Commission. To move Kosovo’s application further, a decision to ask PACE for an opinion thus can be and should be taken at the deputy level as soon as possible.
This is a moment of truth for many European countries which have long claimed to support Kosovo’s European aspirations. It is also a moment of truth for the Committee of Ministers. European democracies should send a strong signal that the place for European democracies is the Council of Europe. There will never be a better time to do so than now.
If even this is not done now, what is the point of repeating that Kosovo has a European vocation?