EU and US step up pressure for a Kosovo-Serbia settlement

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Welcome back. It is good to see that European governments, backed by the Biden administration, are making their most determined effort in many years to settle the Serbia-Kosovo dispute. For peace and stability in Europe, few issues other than the war in Ukraine are in more urgent need of attention. But what are the chances that the EU-US initiative will succeed? I’m at tony.barber.

The post-communist history of the Balkans shows that no regional quarrel, whether over territory, minority rights or national identity, lends itself to an easy solution. No sooner had Greece and North Macedonia overcome their differences over the latter state’s name than long-simmering problems erupted between North Macedonia and Bulgaria — and they are by no means fully solved.

To the north, Bosnia and Herzegovina is Europe’s most dysfunctional state, torn by differences between Muslim Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. But the Balkan dispute to which the EU and US are devoting most diplomatic energy at the moment is that between Serbia and Kosovo, where tensions have been running high for months. Kosovo, pictured in the map above, is not recognised by Serbia as an independent state.

The impulse for this renewed effort comes from the recognition that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, coupled with intensifying frictions between western governments and China, are raising the security stakes for the US and its allies in south-eastern Europe. Some countries in the region are, after all, already Nato members.

Democracy and authoritarianism

Michael Roth, chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, summed up matters well in an article for Internationale Politik Quarterly, a German foreign affairs magazine. He wrote:

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has woken up the EU from its geopolitical slumber . . . The return of war to Europe has made clear to us all that the stabilisation and integration of our neighbours to the east and south-east is first and foremost in our own interest . . . Meanwhile, in the western Balkans a clash of systems is raging between the liberal democracies and the authoritarian regimes of Russia and China.

In the view of Roth and like-minded European politicians, the EU has dithered for too long about helping western Balkan states on their path towards joining the 27-member bloc.

You could say, we’ve heard all this before — and it’s true, the region’s countries seem to be hardly any closer to full EU membership than when they first received the promise of entry in 2003. However, something may be changing.

Consider the French-German declaration issued last Sunday to mark the 60th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty that formalised reconciliation between the two countries. It expressed their “full and unequivocal commitment” to EU membership for western Balkan states, and also voiced a determination “to reach a comprehensive normalisation agreement between Kosovo and Serbia”.

Italy, too, is redoubling its efforts. On Tuesday Giorgia Meloni, who took over as prime minister in October, attended a western Balkans conference in Trieste. The EU must “develop a new vision of this region and place enlargement to the western Balkans among its priorities”, she said. “We cannot allow this strategic quadrant for our continent to remain outside the European common house for much longer.”

On the ground, the push for a Serbia-Kosovo settlement is being led by Miroslav Lajčák, a Slovak diplomat representing the EU, and Gabriel Escobar, the US state department official responsible for western Balkans policy. These two men have enormous experience of the region.

The 1972 West German-East German treaty: a model?

What are they proposing? The exact details are being kept under wraps. But according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the initiative — sometimes known as “the French-German proposal”, because Paris and Berlin last year drafted its early version — does not go so far as to require that Serbia and Kosovo extend official recognition to each other.

In this sense it bears a certain resemblance to the 1972 treaty between West Germany and East Germany, which likewise didn’t include full mutual diplomatic recognition. In practice, however, the two German states did accept each other’s independence, and they set up what were embassies in all but name in each other’s capital cities.

Just as West Germany and East Germany agreed that neither could represent the other on the international stage, so a similar arrangement would apply to Serbia and Kosovo. Serbia would be required not to object to Kosovo’s membership of international organisations, such as the Council of Europe or Interpol, from which it has been excluded since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

As Shqipe Mjekiqi, a political science lecturer and former Kosovo government official, explains in this piece for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Serbia ought to welcome Kosovo’s entry into the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading intergovernmental human rights watchdog. In principle, it would strengthen guarantees of the rights of the Serbian minority who make up under 10 per cent of Kosovo’s mostly ethnic Albanian 1.8mn people.

Obstacles to a settlement

The reality, however, is that the EU-US initiative faces formidable hurdles. One is that Kosovo would be required to accept the establishment of an Association of Serbian Municipalities to provide for a degree of self-government in areas where Serbs form a majority.

Kosovo’s political classes have long resisted taking this step, claiming it would create a secession-minded monster akin to Republika Srpska, the autonomous Bosnian Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, US officials are making it plain to Kosovo’s negotiators that they regard this fear as exaggerated and that it is high time to give the Association the green light.

A second obstacle is that few Serbian politicians — including the one who matters most, President Aleksandar Vučić — show much willingness to make the key compromise needed for a deal: de facto acceptance that Kosovo is an independent state, never again to be under Serbian rule.

Tomislav Marković, a Belgrade-based writer, offers this explanation:

Serbia has never renounced the Greater Serbia nationalist ideology that led to the wars of former Yugoslavia. The one exception was the short premiership of Zoran Đinđić, but that was cut short by his assassination in 2003.

Would an offer of a faster track to EU membership be enough to sway the minds of Serbia’s leaders? Maybe not — public enthusiasm in Serbia for joining the EU has been slowly fading over the years.

A western stick instead of a carrot for Serbia

What about if the EU and US applied the stick, rather than the carrot, to Serbia? Western governments are deeply frustrated with Belgrade’s refusal to join them in imposing sanctions on Russia, and it is striking that some Serbian leaders sounded tougher this week in their criticisms of Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine.

Undoubtedly, they sense that EU membership might be withheld from Serbia as long as they maintain strong ties with Moscow and do not budge on Kosovo.

However, much of the Serbian public has a favourable view of Russian foreign policy, if only because of “the crude fact that Russia is simply not the west”, as Maxim Samorukov and Vuk Vuksanović write for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The argument that the prospect of EU membership can serve as an incentive for a deal for both Serbia and Kosovo runs into a serious problem. Each falls well short of the necessary EU standards on matters ranging from the quality of democracy and freedom of expression to corruption and organised crime. This is made crystal-clear in the European Commission’s most recent reports on Serbia and Kosovo.

A final difficulty is that five EU countries — Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain — have never recognised Kosovo’s independence, for reasons connected to territorial and ethnic disputes in their own countries.

Perhaps a Serbia-Kosovo settlement would help to overcome their reservations. But a long, hard road lies ahead.

What do you think? Will a Serbia-Kosovo settlement be reached this year?

Vote here.

More on this topic

Relaunching the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue — a report by the International Crisis Group

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