Lessons for Brexit Britain from the Balkans

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Disputes over sovereignty may drag on for decades. What can the UK learn from the conflict over Kosovo’s sovereignty?

Brexit, a project founded on the idea of regaining sovereignty, has managed to raise far more issues than it has solved. The UK’s unilateral attempt to extend grace periods on checks at the Irish Sea border immediately revealed how the EU free trade deal has loosened ties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. Such a move occurred soon after the EU’s threat to take unilateral action over COVID-19 vaccines. This dispute indicates that sovereignty over Northern Ireland, or indeed Scotland and even Wales, is likely to play a role in British politics for some time. This could even go so far as to threaten the existence of the United Kingdom.

The first lesson is that disputes over sovereignty can drag on for decades. Kosovo has not been under Serbian control since the 1990s and more formally since 1999, when the UN took over the administration of the area. Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and an entire generation has grown up not knowing Serbian rule. Yet Serbian politicians continue to declare that the area belongs to Belgrade. In doing so, they often cite United Nations Resolution 1244 from 1999, which stresses “the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”. Serbia believes that this gives it a legal claim to Kosovo as it was then part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the legal predecessor to modern Serbia. Similarly, despite the clear rejection of independence in the 2014 Scottish referendum, the issue is far from closed. If anything, Brexit has given new life to the dispute between Holyrood and Westminster over sovereignty.

The second lesson is that the facts on the ground can quickly render legal sovereignty irrelevant. Grandiose statements that Kosovo’s sovereignty will not be recognised, continue to be a prerequisite for Serbian politicians 21 years after the country lost control of Kosovo. Public declarations of sovereignty often play well to domestic audiences, leading politicians to continue to use them long after they have become detached from on the ground reality. As mentioned, Serbia has not been in practical control of Kosovo since the 1990s. A similar reality check may also be needed in Northern Ireland. British ministers are likely to continue talking about British sovereignty over Northern Ireland, even as the enforcement of EU customs rules potentially make it an economic satellite of the Republic of Ireland and the EU. This could occur simply because trade with Great Britain is more difficult.

Thirdly, the temptation to assert sovereignty long after it has faded away leads to empty public gestures designed for domestic consumption. In 2017, Serbian President Vučić sent a train decorated with Serbian iconography and emblazoned with the statement “Kosovo is Serbia” from Belgrade to Mitrovica in the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo. It was stopped before reaching the (very real) border between Kosovo and Serbia in order to prevent a security incident. Similarities could be drawn with Boris Johnson’s continued discussions about building a bridge or a tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland to strengthen the union. This must be regarded as a PR stunt. A transport link will do little to alleviate the damage done to the union by the trade barriers that Johnson agreed to erect between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. These attempts to outwardly demonstrate the importance of the union can actually serve to undermine it. They distract attention from the real issues that threaten the UK and so prevent the difficult changes in domestic policy that could be required to preserve the state. Vučić’s train distracted from the fact that Serbia has not been in effective control of Kosovo since the 1990s. Boris’s bridge obscures the fact that his Brexit deal required him to place one member of the United Kingdom behind a trade border.

Finally, the Kosovo-Serbia dispute also highlights the importance of history and culture and their influence on politics and law. One of the reasons for Serbia’s longstanding policy of refusing to recognise Kosovo is the area’s special place in Serbian culture. Kosovo was at the centre of the medieval Serbian Empire and there are many Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries in the territory. It was also the site of the famous Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Traditional Serbian historical narratives believe that the nation’s defeat during this battle resulted in Muslim Ottoman domination of the Balkan Peninsula for 500 years. The strength of these ideas in Serbian culture as a whole means that it retains importance in the country’s political culture. This historical legacy is often cited as evidence of Serbs’ cultural superiority. As recently as 2019, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić declared that Kosovo’s political leaders are “people who came out of the woods.” As a result, this contributes to Serbia’s refusal to recognise the de facto state of Kosovo.

Meanwhile, Kosovo’s cultural policies have focused on strengthening the new state, which has a majority Albanian population. This has often left out Kosovo’s Serbian minority from this new historical narrative. This includes many Kosovo politicians refusing to recognise the Serbian character of Kosovo’s historical Orthodox monasteries. The polarisation of culture on both sides has led to the two communities rarely interacting with each other. This makes realistic, practical compromises difficult to achieve.

While Northern Ireland’s role in the UK’s sense of identity is not the same as Kosovo’s place in Serbian culture, Northern Ireland is nevertheless vitally important to maintaining the coherence of Britishness as a cultural idea. The divide between unionism and republicanism in Northern Ireland has a strong cultural dimension because of the importance of religion. Protestant Unionists will likely continue to feel British, rather than Irish regardless of the legal situation the province finds itself in. Bloody violence can erupt when legal changes make people feel that their very identity is under threat. This was clear in Kosovo when its autonomy (or you could say devolution) was officially revoked in 1999 by Serbian authorities. In the 1910s, Protestant Unionist paramilitary units formed in response to the prospect of Irish ‘home rule’, a form of devolution. Now, Brexit has raised fears of the unravelling of the union and with it, the peace achieved by the Good Friday Agreement.

All of these issues also raise the question of a potential ‘domino effect’ that is so common in sovereignty disputes. The conflict between Serbia and Kosovo can be seen in the context of a succession of secessions that together brought about the end of the federation of Yugoslavia. It should be noted that this is an ongoing, drawn out process that began with Slovenia’s secession in 1991. In spite of its 2008 declaration of independence, Kosovo and its disputed status ensures that this issue continues to this day. Problems in Northern Ireland could influence or be influenced by moves towards independence in other parts of the United Kingdom, most notably Scotland. In this scenario, British identities could be undermined over time as people become polarised along national lines. Indeed, Yugoslav identities were increasingly abandoned for national ones, including the exclusionary Serb and Albanian narratives regarding Kosovo.

Statements that reaffirm sovereignty are often used by politicians to distract the public from a loss of sovereignty in practical terms. But preserving unions requires more than that. British politicians must grapple with how Brexit has affected the union and enact major policy changes in order to preserve it.

This article is part of wider research and advocacy efforts supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society in the context of the project ‘Building knowledge about Kosovo’.

Luke Bacigalupo  is an independent researcher based in Belgrade. He has published a number of articles on political issues in South Eastern Europe for Global Risk Insights. He received a Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Oxford before going on to study an MA in South-Eastern European Studies at the University of Belgrade. Following his studies he worked for a number international organisations including the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and UNDP in Serbia and now works with Parallel Histories

George Kyris  is a lecturer in European and international politics at the University of Birmingham. He was previously a research fellow at the London School of Economics and has taught at the universities of Manchester and Warwick. He is the author of The Europeanisation of Contested Statehood: The EU in northern Cyprus.

This article first appeared in New Eastern Europe and we are grateful for their permission to republish it.