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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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue