This year’s EU proposal for normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia resurfaces after ongoing disputes between the two countries and the potential risk of further escalation amidst Russia’s war in Ukraine. An EU-led proposal backed by the US and Western nations will again fail due to a lack of understanding of the respective countries and the EU’s discriminatory approach. The trilateral meeting between the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borell, EU Special Representative, Miroslav Lajcak, Prime Minster of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, and the President of Serbia, Aleksander Vucic met in February and verbally agreed to the EU’s eleven-point proposal to normalise relations and in turn advance their paths within European Integaration. Surprisingly to EU bureaucrats but unsurprisingly to those well versed in regional affairs, Vucic returned to Belgrade and assured the perturbed Serbian public that he would not be signing the deal. Nevertheless, the issue is not over to sign or not to sign, but rather the feasibility of the agreement’s implementation.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. After the break up of Yugoslavia, Serbia felt threatened by Kosovo separatism and hence initiated a brutal crackdown on Albanians until a war broke out and was ended by NATO military intervention in 1999. Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty and has ever since been pursuing hostile diplomacy against the country in international organisations and beyond with her main backers, Russia and China. The Serbian public and her leadership are sensitive to Kosovo’s sovereignty, and Serbian increased militarisation efforts and authoritarian stride have increased tensions and fear over another war breaking out in the region. Nevertheless, Serbia has been an EU candidate state since 2012 and the biggest recipient of EU pre-accession funds, albeit a candidate state regressing from the enlargement path in numerous arenas. One of the preconditions are for Serbia to normalise and practice good relations with her neighbours, in this case, Kosovo. Kosovo is aspiring an EU candidacy status and has been progressing in the right direction.
The EU-facilitated deal aims to normalise these relations by both sides agreeing to certain conditions that each has a hard time accepting. The main goal is to ease tensions, prevent an escalation of a conflict, and progress their respective EU integration paths. The main prerogative for Kosovo is that Serbia stops preventing Kosovo’s membership in international organisations and recognises its official documents, while Kosovo is expected to allow the Serbian minority to a degree to be self-managed. While the deal sounds like a modest proposal, there are major deficiencies that both parties are reluctant to accept. The EU’s push does not understand the intentions of the parties and is biased toward one over the other.
Kosovo has struggled to be recognised as a sovereign state in the international community and is not part of many international organisations, such as the United Nations. This problem mainly stems from Serbia’s perpetual blocking of Kosovo’s recognition on multiple fronts. Therefore, Kurti’s main objective is to strengthen Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity through this EU plan and move closer to EU membership. The majority of Kosovars wish to join the bloc, and the country has been improving.
Serbia on the other hand, is a more complex situation. Vucic’s utmost priority is to ensure an Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM), which is also desired by the Serb community in Kosovo. Moreover, Vucic is fervently against Kosovo’s membership in the United Nations and any sort of recognition of its statehood. Nevertheless, the ASM is a highly problematic request, as Kurti fears Serbia could eventually control the Northern part of Kosovo through the ASM and, therefore, weaken Kosovo and in the long term claim that territory. Serbia has been pursuing this strategy in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Republic Srpska and it belongs to the ideology of ‘Srpski Svet’, that the Vucic government has been pursuing in congruence with Russia’s ‘Russkiy Mir’. ‘Srpski Svet’ is defined as ‘Serbian World’ and it is an ideology that stems from 1844 advocating that all ethnic Serbs should be governed under one rule. Moreover, although Serbia is an EU candidate state, it is also eurosceptic, and most Serbs do not want to join the bloc but rather prioritise partnership with Russia. Therefore, the stakes for Serbia are a lot less for this deal to be successful than for Kosovo.
However, the EU is placing high hopes on the plan working out, in which the EU hopes to emerge as a successful negotiator and an important strategic power. Therefore, Kosovo and Serbia were expected to agree and sign the EU deal on the 18th of March in Ohrid, Macedonia. Predictably, Vucic did not sign it. However, in international law, verbal agreements do not need to be signed to be legally binding, leaving it up to the EU as the mediator to ensure both parties implement their side of the agreement. Lajcak has stated prior to the meeting that if any party does not adhere to the deal will, “face repercussions from the European Union and the United States,”. The kind of repercussions to be expected is unknown, but it can be assumed Serbia will most likely not face repercussions due to the EU’s biases.
This is evident given that Serbia, the more problematic party in this negotiation, has already been awarded. Shortly prior to the first meeting on 27 February in Brussels, the EU Enlargement Commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, pre-awarded Serbia with over 600 million euros to fund its railway. Varhelyi, and Lajcak share a common pro-Serbia stance. The European Parliament urged the European Commission to launch an investigation into Varhelyi due to “deliberately seeking to elude and weaken the centrality of democratic reforms and the rule of law in the countries in the process of joining the European Union”. This statement was in reference to Serbia’s deteriorating alignment to EU foreign policy and pro-Russia stance. Whilst Lajcak, who is in charge of facilitating the dialogue, originates from Slovakia, a country that does not recognise Kosovo, and has an extensive background in Serbia. Moreover, under the Slovak Prime Minster Robert Fico, in 2016 when Lajcak was the Minster of Foreign Affairs of Slovakia, Fico lobbied Russia to support Lajcak for UN Secretary-General Position. Nevertheless, Lajcak’s popularity was low due to serving an anti-muslim PM Fico. Kosovo is a majority Muslim country, and therefore, Lajcak’s position in these negotiations are not neutral.
The EU has positioned itself to be a prejudiced actor by failing to understand the complexity of the region and employing biased EU officials. Consequently, far from strengthening the EU’s autonomy, the EU is tarnishing its reputation in the region and beyond. Although an agreement has been reached, the implementation process of both parties mediated by the EU does not appear promising. In the long term, this agreement is unrealistic for Serbia’s ambitions in the region, as Vucic has repeatedly stated that Serbia “will not implement anything related to Kosovo’s membership of the UN or any kind of actual or de jure recognition”. Moreover, it will be difficult for Kurti to implement ASM, knowingly fearing Serbia’s strategy throughout the region.
The EU has repeatedly shown its lax attitude toward Serbia’s EU candidacy deterioration and keeps on pursuing a ‘carrot and stick’ strategy that clearly does not work. The EU should stop giving leeway to EU candidate states that are not aligning to the EU democratic and value-based principles. Instead, the EU should reward those who are making progress and have desire to join the bloc while simultaneously ensuring that appropriate officials are in charge of the EU Neighbourhood and Enlargement Policy.
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Pedisic, L. (2023) The Doomed EU-Led Dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, IDRN, 24 March. Available at: https://idrn.eu/the-doomed-eu-led-dialogue-between-serbia-and-kosovo/ [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].