A deal on normalising the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo is on the international community’s agenda again. Could the alleged French-German plan be an acceptable solution for both parties? If not, what would you suggest as a possible deal-breaker? And could an agreement be reached next year?
The war in Ukraine has further increased the security alerts on yet another soft spot in Europe – the open disputes as a legacy of the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. Notably, the issue between Kosovo and Serbia represents one of the most fragile issues with serious repercussions for the stability of the region but also of the EU as well. The dispute seemingly is not as issue that only involves the two parties, it however implicates the EU as the facilitator of the Dialogue since 2011 and it has often served as an arena witnessing the clashes of the titans – the West (EU, USA, NATO) versus Russia, and to some extent China.
The urgency to keep stability in a region, that can easily turn into another frontline in Europe, has pushed the EU and USA to intensify its efforts to reach an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. This is also a good momentum for the West to bring Serbia closer to the EU and to detach it from Russia, which is immensely busy with Ukraine and has limited political capacity to meddle with the Balkans.
The latest proposal, the so-called French–German plan, has been first circulating among EU pundits and later its existence has been formally admitted by the EU, Kosovo and Serbia. Little details are known about the proposal, but the document sets a timeframe and stages until the parties reach the final agreement. The proposal has sanctions for the parties reluctant to commit genuinely to the process – which makes it different and blunter in terms of the EU’s attitude toward this process. However, the proposal aims to make one step further in solving the dispute, but it will not bring total closure. The agreement is seemingly a continuation of the First Normalisation Agreement of 2013, that does not contain the expected breakthrough for Kosovo – i.e., the recognition from Serbia. Recognition by the five EU countries that so far do not recognize Kosovo, an idea that Kosovo has often advocated for, has not been mentioned so far, which makes the plan less appealing for Kosovo. The plan might be a good intermediary step toward the final deal which would close the open dispute between the two countries.
An agreement based on the so-called French-German plan has a high probability to be reached during the first part of the next year, as all parties are pushing in that direction. However, for this agreement to be effective and implementable, its draft must be clear in language – thus the EU should abandon its ‘constructive ambiguity’. The agreement shall provide a very clear action plan for the implementation and pave the way for the last step which should end with mutual recognition. Anything less than recognition and full closure, will leave the dispute open and will risk the future of both countries and the entire region.
Belgrade repeatedly stated that Serbia would never recognise Kosovo’s independence. How to overcome this obstacle?
The political elite in Serbia has often used the case of Kosovo for domestic political consumption, thus feeding the nationalist narratives while gradually capturing the state and strengthening its relations with Russia, which sided with Serbia in relation to Kosovo. So, the recognition of Kosovo is not about Kosovo per se as much as it is about state capture [in Serbia], the position of Vucic as the partner for dialogue for the EU and the geopolitical partnership with Russia. Given the above, the recognition of Kosovo is strongly linked to the democratization and Europeanization of Serbia. It is about a guaranteed and more credible EU path and it is about fighting state capture.
Without the recognition of Kosovo by Serbia, there is a very easy way to open the European path for Kosovo and potential NATO membership or Partnership for Peace (PfP). The first step to overcome this dependency on Serbia’s decision to recognise Kosovo is for the five EU member states to recognise Kosovo. In this way the EU path for Kosovo is open and the political obstacles in this regard are lifted. Similarly, the veto of the non-recognisers would not block Kosovo’s membership in NATO, which is way more important than the EU membership in a region with such fragile security situation. So, it will give Kosovo the PfP and even more intensive relation with NATO which can lead to membership.
Making it part of international organisations would give Kosovo a more secure place in international arena without it depending solely on Serbia’s political will. This way, the dispute of Kosovo and Serbia will remain at the margins of the political life of two countries and will not further feed the power asymmetry between the two in the international arena and during the dialogue. And the dialogue can solve issues between Kosovo and Serbia.
If both countries cannot reach an agreement through the dialogue, as it was the case so far, do you think the international community could discuss a possible deal without involving Belgrade and Pristina, following a ‘Yalta-model’, and then impose a solution?
The political will of both parties is crucial for a sustainable and implementable agreement. An imposed solution can look like the fastest way to reach a deal only in cases when the parties are at war and the margins for negotiations are extremely low. In the case of Kosovo and Serbia, both parties are committed to the process directed not only to solving the dispute but also paving their EU integration path. Hence, both Kosovo and Serbia – in addition to the EU facilitated Dialogue – have also developed their formal bilateral relations with the EU. In that sense, there is enough political capacity to negotiate and take full ownership in the process.
An imposed solution without ownership of the parties that are signatories to the agreement exposes the entire process to multiple risks. First, an imposed solution can create gaps that both parties can use to justify the lack of political will for the implementation of the agreement. An imposed solution is more likely to be used by the leaders to frame it as a ‘bad compromise’ the West pushed the parties to make, generating anti-West sentiment in both countries while requiring little to no political capital to implement the agreement.
Although, given the current situation in the northern part of Kosovo, the pressure from the EU and the US. is clearly stronger and the efforts to push the countries toward the final deal are clearly more intense. The French-German plan, backed by Washington, shows that the parties still need a third party to intervene and mediate, yet the ownership is being given by simply proposing an arrangement and leaving the parties to negotiate and reach the agreement. Should the security situation in the north become more serious, the likelihood of an externally imposed agreement will increase. However, it is very unlikely to take the ‘Yalta model’ scenario.
Do you think the EU could revitalise the integration process in the Balkans by proposing to Belgrade and Kosovo a fast-accession track and their joint accession to the bloc?
With the current lack of enlargement appetite among the member states, it is very unlikely to witness fast track integration process for any of the Western Balkan country, nor there is a political will to have any ‘bloc’ enlargement toward the region.
The EU’s reluctancy to make any steps – for instance after the North Macedonia–Greece agreement, has come to the expense of the EU credibility, leadership and ability to solve disputes and live to their promises. The EU normative power in the situations of ongoing conflict has been questioned very often and the case of Kosovo and Serbia expose this vulnerability.
European pundits initially hoped that the EU’s accession policy would give the EU strategic traction in the dialogue it facilitated between Belgrade and Pristina. They put their faith in the transformative power the EU had taken pride of in the 2000s, although little indications existed of the EU’s prowess in such issue areas. On the contrary, experience showed, at least in the case of North Macedonia vs. Greece, or Croatia vs. Slovenia, that bilateral disputes remained rather immune to transformation under EU guidance. They had their own logic of negotiations that tended to put national interests in the forefront and European integration on the back burner. This belief that the accession policy, with its membership incentive and Copenhagen criteria, would tame nationalism, foster reconciliation and allow parties settle their disputes in a good-neighbourly spirit was in most cases plain wishful thinking.
Solving disputes should also have a regional character and only a credible enlargement perspective can pave the way for a more successful process. Trying to cover these issues and move on without solving them might create another Cyprus scenario in the Balkans. And this is not going to work in favour of the EU nor for the region.