In the past few minutes I have read that the parliament in Priština has unanimously issued a declaration of Kosovo's independence from Serbia. The United States, Britain and a whole host of other countries around the world will now swiftly move to recognise the new republic. Moscow has given the news a slightly frostier reception and called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council. The BBC website is describing the potential for violence as "enormous". At this stage it is still far too early to know whether we should rejoice or be distressed at the news from the Balkans.
Am I rejoicing? Well, I am not a nationalist so not really. When you start the ball rolling on permitting peoples occupying a territory which they consider distinct from the rest of the state on the basis of religion, history or ethnicity to secede from that state at what point do you actually draw the line? Do you draw the line at all? Perhaps these days in what some preposterously call 'post-nationalist Europe' (a Europe with possibly more independent nation states than it has ever had in its history) we support the stance of the 19th century Irish home ruler Charles Stewart Parnell: “No man has the right to fix the boundary of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country: 'Thus far shalt thou go and no further'.” This of course raises the other major question of what is that constitutes a nation and, more importantly, what do we do when another group of people object to that nationhood - such as with the Serbs in today's case. As we in Ireland can testify, independence can be a messy old business and the example of Kosovo does not make the subject any less muddled.
Europe has many unsettled territorial disputes. I wonder what is going through the minds of Basques today as they watch the jubilation in Priština? Surely they must yearn for such scenes someday on the boulevards of Bilbao. What must advocates of Catalan independence be thinking? Or what about the feelings of Scottish and Welsh nationalists? Can they now see their devolved administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff developing into full blown national parliaments? How, I wonder, do the supporters of Breton and Corsican separatism look at today's developments in eastern Europe? Beyond Europe there must be scores upon scores of other nationalist groups longing to take their place among the nations of earth alongside newly free Kosovo.
I believe Kosova (we might as well start using the Albanian spelling from this point on) has a right to be independent, if only because every other old constituent part of the former Yugoslavia ended up gaining their own right to statehood. To exclude Kosovans would be absurd given all that has happened in this region since the early 1990s. But I do sometimes wonder though whether there was another way, an alternative to all that has taken place over the past fifteen years. Or was the fragmentation of Yugoslavia simply inevitable? Were those tens of thousands of deaths really unavoidable? Could it not have been possible to hold together all of the various ethnic groups and avoid the vicious wars of the nineties under some kind of federal framework for the country? Please do not think for one second that I am claiming the old Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to be a fair model for how to run a country. It was far from it. Nor am I ignorant of that fact that many Croats and others were never content living under the Titoist system. Indeed it would have been redressing its total lack of democracy and federalism that I would have preferred to see happen rather than the option which was chosen - dissolution and war.
Take Spain for example. When the Franco regime was brought to an end in the mid seventies there were minorities within Spain with similarly valid claims to nationhood that had just come out of a similarly long period of dictatorship. The answer in this case was not the total dissolution of the Spanish state but instead the building of a democratic Spain. As idealistic as it may sound now how much better it would have been had Yugoslavia gone through its own Transición.
Nevertheless, the debate as to whether or not the horrifying conflicts in the Balkans in that final decade of the 20th century could have been avoided is now a futile one, of interest only to academics and students studying the history of the region. Today we witnessed the last piece in the jigsaw; the long protracted death of what was Yugoslavia has now ended.
The final irony may come when at some point in the future Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Slovenes, Macedonians and Kosovans all find themselves sitting together in brotherhood and unity - to borrow a phrase from Tito - within a new union. Not the union of Yugoslavia of course, but a strong, united and democratic European Union. It is the job of all progressives to argue in favour of that union and hasten its arrival.