With a snap election called for the 11th June, Kosovo is asking questions about its relationship with the European Union.  Key to the campaigns will be the parties’ approach to EU integration – and Brussels is watching closely.

New Europe talked to Avdullah Hoti in Brussels, Kosovo’s outgoing Finance Minister and prime ministerial candidate of the pro-European Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), about his party’s work to improve economic development, tackle the rise of nationalism, and secure a European Future.

New Europe: Federica Mogherini held a dinner with Western Balkans leaders last week to discuss progress towards EU integration. How central is the question of EU accession to Kosovars today? 

Avdullah Hoti: Kosovo is a young country, and we have a young population – arguably the youngest in Europe.  The energy and aspirations that spring from who we are and where we are drive our total determination to acceding to EU membership.  In any European country there exists, as we’ve seen recently, strains of nationalism that can distract from the goal of membership in a common Europe, whole and free.  But, having suffered the hardship of war not so long ago, I believe these are less of a factor for Kosovars who share the motivation to achieve visa liberalisation – the next step on our path – so that we might more closely integrate our economy with others in Europe and continue contributing to regional growth, albeit on a broader scale.  Europe is our reality and accession is our future.

What is the nature of the LDK’s relationship with the EU?

The LDK is, without question, the most EU-facing party in Kosovo.  Our founder, Ibrahim Rugova, who became our country’s first president set that vision at the very outset of our statehood.  Since then, we have built a program that aligns fully with the requirements of EU membership, and that means building an economy that will contribute to European prosperity.  We are fulfilling that now. 

That is why we are the only party with observer membership of a major European political grouping, through our partnership with the European People’s Party (EPP) – and the only party that can ensure Kosovo remains at the top of Brussels’ agenda.

What are the main obstacles to accession, in your opinion?

Clearly the Union is facing a period of shifting priorities, led foremost by the UK’s exit negotiations and a series of divisive internal elections. This period of European introspection is dangerous, risking disengagement by Balkans States and potentially leaving a vacuum in the region which Russia will aim to fill. Brussels must not allow Balkans citizens to feel as though momentum towards accession is slowing. Europe must demonstrate leadership in the region at this crucial juncture.

But there are also obstacles to overcome on home soil.  Some politicians in Kosovo do play to those same undercurrents of nationalism we have seen elsewhere in Europe, but I believe people are smart, and Kosovars understand the difference between moving forward and backwards.  An example is the debate over demarcation of our border with Montenegro, the last remaining obstacle to achieving visa liberalization.  Nationalists have played on this issue, but we will resolve it as a matter of common-sense and our own national interest, which does not diverge in any serious way from that of our neighbour and friend.

The election we have before us on June 11th – coincidentally the anniversary of our independence – will be a bellwether of our intent as a nation.  We cannot simultaneously play to nativist passions and perform the hard work of building a state, and in two short weeks, Europe will see Kosovars make the right choice.  Of this I am wholly confident.

Do you believe progress has been made by Kosovo towards achieving EU accession under the last Government, despite increasing nationalism in the region?

Absolutely.  Kosovo made significant progress over the past two years in areas led by the LDK under the coalition government – notably in economic development.

As Finance Minister, I oversaw economic growth of 4% – the highest in the region. During this time, we created jobs for 40,000 Kosovo citizens, bringing thousands of people out of unemployment. 

At the same time, we have harmonized regulations and increased revenues to the state budget by more than 60 percent, allowing us to do a better job delivering on the needs of the citizens and the state. 

And this allows us to increase trade and better attract foreign investment, which has tripled since we have managed the government’s economic portfolio.

Winning this election together with our coalition partners – both liberal democratic parties – will give us the mandate we need to accelerate this growth forward and deliver on the dream of our young, progressive country.  For its citizens, and for the region, Kosovo is ready to lead.

Mogherini has made clear that greater regional cooperation and peace-keeping will be fundamental to the EU’s consideration of enlargement into the Balkans. What is your vision for Kosovo’s role in the region?

It is vital that we engage constructively with other Balkans states. We cannot progress towards EU integration alone.  I believe that now is the time for Kosovo to show leadership in the region, to demonstrate commitment to promoting cooperation and stability among our neighbours, moving away from the conflict of the past.   We must move forward together for the sake of our young people. For the sake of their livelihoods and opportunities. For the sake of building safer, more prosperous places to live. For the sake of achieving a European future.  That’s what I stand for – there is no alternative.