The vanishing asterisk: The evolution of the EU’s approach towards Kosovo

Cartoon commentary on the quote by Edita Tahiri, former head negotiator of Kosovo, that the asterisk will melt like a snowflake. Illustration by ARTIST/Sbunker, used with permission.

This story by Miloš Pavković was originally published by Sbunker. An edited version is republished by Global Voices with permission. Kosovo’s legal status in international relations has been ambiguous since it declared independence in 2008. The southeastern European country remains only partially recognized and is not a member of prominent intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations. Moreover, five European Union (EU) member states (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain) do not recognize it as an independent country. Consequently, this has had repercussions on how the EU treats Kosovo. Since the adoption of the Regional Representation Agreement in 2012, under the framework of the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue facilitated by the EU, all EU institutions and bodies have consistently referred to Kosovo with an asterisk and accompanying footnote as part of the agreement. The footnote states:

“This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.”

UN Resolution 1244/1999 of June 10, 1999, authorized an international civil and military presence in Kosovo after the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo and established the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) which is still functioning today, albeit with minor functions. The Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated that the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo did not violate international law. However, the court did not provide a definitive answer on the legality of Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, which officially refuses to recognize its independence. Despite the complications that arise when using asterisks/footnotes in writing documents, creating websites, and implementing projects, the EU continues to uphold this policy, despite Kosovo's dislike of the practice, even though it had initially agreed to the practice in 2012. Edita Tahiri, former head negotiator of Kosovo at the moment of signing the Regional Representation Agreement (2012), had stated that the asterisk would melt down like a snowflake:

“Ajo fusnotë është si fjollë bore, do të shkrihet me kalimin e dimrit.”

“That footnote is like a snowflake, it will melt as the winter passes.”

Since 2012, however, EU institutions have employed different approaches when referring to Kosovo. Despite being an official policy, they have been gradually moving away from using the footnote/asterisk in documents and meetings. The latest Agreement and its Implementation Annex on the path to normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia agreed in March 2023 might mark an official change in this approach. Neither document refers to Kosovo with an asterisk/footnote, despite this being an official position of the EU.

The European Parliament no longer refers to Kosovo with a footnote/asterisk

The European Parliament (EP) was the first EU institution to stop referring to Kosovo with the asterisk. This was first made evident in 2015 when an EP resolution mentioned Kosovo without an asterisk/footnote; the last time it did so was in 2013. After 2015, Kosovo has been referred to without the asterisk/footnote in almost all of the EP’s documents. However, it's worth keeping in mind that the EP’s resolutions are not legally binding and that the body has generally taken a more liberal approach on various issues compared to the European Commission (EC). Thus, this change in approach is unsurprising. Moreover, the EP called on Vjosa Osmani, the President of Kosovo, to address the plenary session in June 2023, thereby making her the first Kosovo official to give a speech at the EP. Her affiliation was referred to without the asterisk/footnote. The stance of the EP differs from the Commission’s as it officially abandoned the policy of neutrality on the status of Kosovo. In its last report, the EP reaffirmed that the normalization process should be centered around mutual recognition.

European Commission’s inconsistency in reference to Kosovo

Unlike the EP, the European Commission has had a stricter approach when it comes to following the guidelines of the 2012 Regional Representation Agreement. Since its initial report on Kosovo in 2015, the EC has consistently adhered to the provisions of the 2012 Agreement, employing the asterisk/footnote consistently when mentioning Kosovo on its website and in its funded projects. For example, the EU Regional Communication Programme for the Western Balkans consistently employs the asterisk/footnote policy. The same is true with the Common Regional Market initiative supported by the EU and Regional Cooperation Council (RCC). Additionally, the official website of the EU office in Kosovo also features an asterisk and footnote. However, occasional inconsistencies may still arise in some of the committees and agencies.

The approach is changing

Kosovo has been invited on numerous occasions to participate in the work of different EC bodies. These bodies provide publicly available meeting minutes or reports which show that in the majority of cases Kosovo is referred to without a footnote/asterisk. For instance, at the 85th meeting of the Single Sky Committee, Kosovo participated on par with other states. The same happened at the 10th meeting of the Programme Committee of Horizon Europe. In one of the Horizon Europe meetings, Kosovo was even referred to in Serbian Cyrillic as “Република Косово” (Republic of Kosovo), which can also imply recognition of its multi-ethnic character and the fact that the country has two official languages, Albanian and Serbian, the former being native with a 93 percent majority and the latter a minority of 2 percent of its citizens. What is common in these instances is that the asterisk/footnote was not used. On the other hand, Kosovo’s participation in the Customs Programme Committee adhered to the standards of the Regional Representation Agreement (2011). When it comes to EU agencies, Kosovo participates in three of them. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) treats Kosovo like other Western Balkan candidates. The same applies to the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) which refers to Kosovo as any other state. In contrast, Kosovo’s engagement with the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) has led to judicial proceedings initiated by Spain to deny Kosovo’s participation in this body. Because of the controversy surrounding Kosovo’s membership in this body, the presence of the asterisk/footnote shouldn’t come as a surprise. There exists a noticeable lack of uniformity in how EU institutions, bodies, committees, and agencies refer to Kosovo in official capacities. However, the gradual fading away of the asterisk/footnote has become subtly apparent. This tendency appears to be influenced by the personnel chairing committees, drafting summary reports and recording meeting minutes. As it happens, Edita Tahiri’s prediction that “the asterisk will melt down like a snowflake” seems to be proving accurate.

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