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Wider Europe Briefing: The Conundrum Of Kosovo's EU Application And The Broader Effects Of Qatar-Gate

Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti (left) hands over the country's official application for EU candidancy status to Czech Minister of EU Affairs Mikulas Bek in Prague on December 15.
Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti (left) hands over the country's official application for EU candidancy status to Czech Minister of EU Affairs Mikulas Bek in Prague on December 15.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two major issues: How Brussels will deal with Kosovo's EU application and how lobbying in Brussels will change for EU hopefuls in the wake of Qatar-gate.

Brief #1: Kosovo's EU Membership Application Is A First For Brussels

What You Need To Know: Kosovo officially applied to join the European Union on December 15. Pristina has long sought eventual membership in Western organizations, but the move was sped up by Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February last year and the subsequent renewed impetus of the EU enlargement process with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova, and Ukraine. Those three countries have all become official EU candidates in recent months.

With even Georgia applying for membership last year and getting potential candidate status, Kosovo was suddenly the only country left in Europe that had previously expressed hopes of one day joining the bloc but that still hadn't formally applied to do so.

Deep Background: Kosovo's application is a real head-scratcher in Brussels. Normally, when a country applies for membership, EU member states in the European Council simply send over the request to the European Commission, usually with minimal fuss, so that it can prepare an opinion. That process can sometimes take years. Not so in Kosovo's case.

That is because this is the first time ever that a country that isn't recognized by all EU member states is formally asking to become a part of the club. It is, in other words, a legal sui generis that Brussels must grapple with.

And it is not only the five non-recognizers of Kosovo -- Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain -- that will have potential issues. Because of the naysaying quintet, the European Union, as an international organization, also does not regard Kosovo as a sovereign state. The bloc simply refers to the country as "Kosovo," with an asterisked footnote containing text agreed in the ongoing EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina that reads: "This designation is without prejudice to the position of status and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence."

Drilling Down

  • Sweden, which currently chairs the rotating six-month European Council presidency, officially briefed EU ambassadors in Brussels on the issue for the first time on January 11. It was a very short discussion in which only the Swedish ambassador spoke, informing his colleagues that all member states will be consulted in the upcoming two weeks and that they will reconvene toward the end of the month for a more thorough discussion and to potentially decide on a course of action.
  • It is already clear that it will be very tricky to move forward. Not only will the five non-recognizers be reluctant to change their minds, Hungary recently signaled that it is against any moves that would indicate future EU membership for Kosovo, as Budapest claims it would jeopardize the chances of Kosovo and Serbia reaching a deal. Belgrade and Pristina have been locked in talks about normalizing mutual relations since 2011.
  • There is, however, pressure for Sweden to do something with this issue before the end of its presidency, which concludes on July 1. Firstly, it is Spain, perhaps the most militant non-recognizer, that takes over the EU presidency next. And Madrid, with plenty of its own separatist quandaries, will almost certainly not want to deal with this question. Secondly, there is a serious risk that the issue will be buried next year. In 2024, Brussels will be consumed by a "changing of the guard," with European Parliament elections and the selection of new presidents for the European Council and European Commission.
  • To just sit on the issue, though, would damage the EU's credibility. It could be solved in the European Council using Qualified Majority Voting (QVM). Instead of unanimity, in QVM only 55 percent of member states (representing at least 65 percent of the total EU population) need to vote in favor for a motion to pass -- meaning Kosovo would pass the muster. But there is a reluctance to use QVM, with a preference for reaching some kind of consensus among the 27 member states.
  • The answer might be found in semantics, in particular the difference between "unanimity" and "consensus." The former means that everyone actively says yes -- in a vote or otherwise. The latter means that no one opposes. This offers the opportunity for countries like Spain to "look the other way" and to agree without being seen as endorsing the view that Kosovo is a sovereign state.
  • It would also help if Serbia and Kosovo struck some sort of deal this spring. A draft proposal is on the table, and even if that wouldn't result in Serbian recognition of Kosovo's statehood, it could mean mutual recognition of national symbols such as passports, and that alone could go a long way in allaying the fears of the non-recognizers.

Brief #2: What Qatar-Gate Means For Lobbying

What You Need To Know: Brussels was rocked in December with the arrest of European Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili; her partner; a former Italian member of the European Parliament (MEP); and the boss of an NGO, perhaps ironically named Fight Impunity. They are now facing preliminary charges of corruption, money laundering, and participation in a criminal organization that could be related to an alleged bribery campaign organized by Qatar.

Kaili, who before the scandal was a rising star in both Greek and European politics, was immediately stripped of her immunity and vice president title, with the Belgian prosecutor reportedly finding 150,000 euros ($163,000) in cash at her Brussels apartment -- money she claimed she learned about on the day of her partner's arrest.

For now, the scandal is mostly confined to the European Parliament, with two more MEPs set to have their immunities revoked when the European Parliament plenary reconvenes on January 16.

Deep Background: The European Parliament is now busy coming up with new rules and regulations to prevent another Qatar-gate. On January 12, the house's powerful Conference of Presidents, which consists of the European Parliament president and the leaders of the chamber's political groupings, discussed a number of measures that they will now start to implement.

The measures will likely have an impact on how countries in the Western Balkans and the EU's Eastern Neighborhood lobby the chamber in the future. Brussels has always been something of a lobbyists' paradise, with thousands of politicians, officials, and diplomats in the same place with very lenient rules. But that might be about to change soon.

Drilling Down

  • Under proposed new reforms, whistle-blowers will be better protected, even though details still have to be worked out and will take time to implement. One suggestion is a new, independent ethics commission that would oversee all EU institutions and have punitive power to fine or even suspend EU officials. It's ambitious and well-meaning, but also unlikely to get off the ground.
  • Other ideas include a "cooling off period" for former MEPs who wish to work as lobbyists; a requirement that those who want to appear at European Parliament events be listed in the EU's transparency register; and a rule making it mandatory for MEPs to make public all scheduled meetings with third parties related to a report or resolution the European Parliament is working on.
  • While EU candidate countries such as Ukraine and North Macedonia enjoy widespread support in the chamber, and the European Parliament is the EU institution keenest on rapid membership for these countries (even though they only have a limited say in this and other foreign policy fields), lobbying is still taking place, especially around the various reports and resolutions that concern these aspiring candidates.
  • European Parliament resolutions might be nonbinding and have little bearing on EU policy in general, but countries affected tend to get rattled by them, and they garner a fair bit of media attention. The European Parliament's recent call to the Georgian authorities to release former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili from jail and to impose sanctions on oligarch and political kingpin Bidzina Ivanishvili certainly didn't go unnoticed in Tbilisi. The chamber's resolution to classify Russia as a "terrorist state" in November made quite the media splash and apparently triggered a Kremlin-linked cyberattack on the parliament.
  • There are other ideas being proposed that directly concern the Western Balkans and the bloc's Eastern partners. One is the banning of any unofficial groupings of MEPs, such as so-called Friendship Groups with third countries. Another idea is that countries' official interactions with the European Parliament would only be allowed through the Committee on Foreign Affairs, official parliamentary delegations to the country or region, or the European Parliament president.
  • Another proposal likely to fly is that resolutions tabled with urgency, usually dealing with current human rights issues, must first be approved by the parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs. That's because there have been complaints that previous urgent resolutions were the target of improper influence.

Looking Ahead

There have been quite a few announcements recently about more Western weapons deliveries to Ukraine. Expect more this week as the Ukraine Defense Contact Group will convene on January 20. The group, usually referred to as "the Ramstein Format" after the U.S military base in Germany where its first meeting was held last April, is a U.S.-led group of more than 40 countries. It includes all 30 NATO allies, the two NATO invitees, Finland and Sweden, and also other non-NATO countries such as Australia, Israel, Japan, Morocco, Qatar, and New Zealand.

Before the next meeting in Ramstein, the defense chiefs of all 30 NATO allies will convene in Brussels on January 18-19 for a meeting of the Military Committee, NATO's highest military authority. The war in Ukraine is expected to dominate proceedings there, as well.

The European Parliament will hold its first plenary of the year in Strasbourg this week. Ukraine will, of course, feature prominently throughout the four-day session. Perhaps the most interesting debate is taking place on January 17: "the establishment of a tribunal on the crime of aggression against Ukraine." While no such tribunal is expected under the auspices of the United Nations -- Security Council member Russia could just veto it -- the EU is looking into ways to establish such a body.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak or on e-mail at

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

To subscribe, click here.