Kosovan independence was legal, says Hague court

Joe Biden throws US support behind the fledgling nation as International Court of Justice sanctions

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has today ruled that Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008 did not violate international law or the 1999 United Nations resolution that placed Kosovo under interim UN administration.

Although Serbia has pledged to continue the fight to reabsorb the territory, the ruling is a landmark decision for potentially separatist regions around the world.

Currently, 69 countries recognise Kosovo as a nation, including the US, the UK and much of the rest of the EU, though hardly any countries in the Middle or Far East have followed suit.

The US vice-president, Joe Biden, who met the Kosovar prime minister in Washington yesterday, even went as far as to affirm that even if the UN were to rule Kosovan independence unlawful, the US would continue to recognise it has a nation. However, to qualify for membership of the United Nations, Kosovo will need at least 100 countries to endorse it -- something it looks more likely to achieve following today's ruling.

Serbia argues that the Kosovo region is the birthplace of its national identity. Indeed, Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić told the New York Times in January that he realises how Serbian fervour for the place looks to the rest of the world, but argued:

This place, Kosovo, is our Jerusalem; you just can't treat it any other way than our Jerusalem.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has historic roots in the Kosovo region, and the Serbs suffered a historic defeat to the Turks in Kosovo in 1389. This feeds into the Serbian mythology surrounding the area as the birthplace of the Serbian state.

Although today's ruling is a landmark for Kosovo and for other separatist groups in the region (Ossetia and Chechnya in particular), Serbia has no intention of conceding. Following the ICJ's announcment in The Hague, Jeremić restated his country's intention to keep fighting. He said:

Serbia will not change its position regarding Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence and necessity of a compromise. Our fight for such a solution will probably be long and difficult, but we will not give up.

Looking back

You might like to read Kim Bytyci's take on the 2008 Serbian elections from the New Statesman's archive.

Syed Hamad Ali wrote for the NS in July 2008 of the countries that had recognised Kosovo -- also well worth a read.

And, in August 2008, Elena Jurado of the international think tank Policy Network offered her thoughts in the NS on the role of Russia in the region as more states attempt to separate from the former USSR.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.