State building and the EU’s supra-national momentum

Kosovo’s imminent independence – while the right course – raises difficult questions about some elements of the European project

Kosovo is about to become independent. Everybody knows that this is a bad solution, but they also know that all other options would be worse. The international community has stuck to its position, and so far so good. Recent news reports tell us that the newly elected majority in Serbia will face problems in pushing through the clear pro-European stance that was announced in the campaign, but let’s hope that Serbia will soon engage in negotiations with the EU again, for the sake of the Western Balkans as a whole.

This piece is not intended as a comment on Kosovo. It is presented instead as a more general reflection on what is happening with respect to the European project. The argument, I want to put forward for discussion here is that the current institutional system of the EU enhances state building along ethnic lines, and that this is in contradiction to the core project of the EU, which is supranationality. What I mean by this is that ever smaller entities, if and when they constitute as ‘new states’, will get an immediate power position within the EU’s institutional system. They get their deputies and votes in the Council, and – even in a rotation system – finally their own Commissioner. This clearly gives an incentive to ethnic communities to go for ‘independence’, although the viability of these ‘states’ should be questioned.

My argument is about Kosovo and other probable ‘newly-to-be-created’  states in the Balkans – but also about regional entities within existing states in the Western part of the EU, that have strong movements for autonomy, if not independence: Catalonia as much as Scotland, or the two parts of Belgium, Wallonia and Flanders.

Ever smaller states within the EU tilt the institutional balance of the EU towards the smaller states – with the bigger ones becoming more ‘nationalist’ in return. More precisely, the ‘losers’ of the game are big regional entities within larger member states, i.e. Bavaria in Germany, Northern Italy or – as mentioned above – Catalonia or Scotland. They do not get an immediate representation at the EU table, although in terms of GDP per capita or population, they greatly outrank  the many ‘new states’ that we see arriving, to their utmost discomfort. This precisely triggers the move for more autonomy of these entities. They know that their shaping capacity of policies at EU level is restricted, although these policies impact highly on them as regional entities. Belgium is another good example. Would the EU ‘win’ with two independent Belgian states? What would be the impact? Two Commissioners for Belgium? More deputies in the EP? Two other foreign ministers that the world does not need? Whereas the much needed single foreign minister of the EU does not see the daylight? Do we need a Kosovar foreign minister in the EU system? The EU needs to solve this dilemma, and  soon.

I recently had a chance to talk to the British European Minister Jim Murphy, who argued, that if Belgium splits, two foreign ministers would make sense, as then they are two new states, whereas the EU could not get a foreign minister, as the EU is not a state. Sure, but the EU has many state-like elements (common law, a single currency, a court). And in practical terms, the world needs an EU foreign minister more than two Belgium ones. So to which definition of ‘nation’ do we stick here? Could it be that our notion of a ‘nation state’ is an old-fashioned one? Ernest Renan, the famous French sociologist, once said that what constitutes a nation is a common vision of the future. Does this not apply to the EU?

In short, the question is whether we need 5 or 6 new states in the Western Balkans in the EU and how the institutional system of the EU will digest them, without, firstly, triggering nasty side-effects of the larger EU countries disengaging from the whole European undertaking, and secondly, without damaging the guiding principle of the EU: overcoming nationalism. Had former Yugoslavia stayed united, it would probably already be a member of the EU. This is not to roll back the wheel of history which is impossible, of course. Hence, this is just an argument on the table so that we think twice in the future about the processes we are engaging in and the effects they will have in the long run.

Can we think of a more creative solution? Could for example Croatia enter the EU without getting a Commissioner? The Lisbon Treaty already goes for a system of rotation from 2014 onwards which is a good thing. But this will not be sufficient. The EU does not need an additional Commissioner for white wine management, nor does the EP need additional members. My point here is not to forget about the supranational roots of the EU project and to keep them in our mind, when discussing the future of state-building in the context of EU membership.

Could we go for a ceiling of, say, 12 Commissioners, depending on the portfolios that we want the EU to have? Or could we add one Commissioner for every, say, additional 20 million people, independently on how many ‘states’ join? Or that one MEP accounts for 1 million EU citizens cross-cutting borders? This would probably shift the selection and election of these deputies towards their policy convictions, rather than on nationality-based choices.

In short: as much as the independence of Kosovo is probably in the existing context the right thing to do now, let us not forget what the project of the EU was initially all about. We do not need more borders, we need less. They make anyway ever less sense in a modern political entity with the four basic freedoms, which are the pride of the EU.

Regarding the institutional system of the EU, the real question is what should be dealt with in the future on the regional, the national and the EU level. We’ll maybe decide to give back competences to regions, because this is what people want; and that we shift other competences, i.e. in foreign policy, on the EU level. It might be the national level that is most under strain. If this is so, there is no need to build new states along national or ethnic lines. Let Kosovo be the catalyst for more creativity about what we want to achieve with the EU.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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