Opinion
19 Sep 2018

Kosovo & Serbia --  the EU needs to hurry up

There's a ray of hope for resolving the almost 20-year frozen spat between Belgrade and Pristina, and for finalizing this divorce case once and for all. But not for long.

Karolina Zbytniewska
Karolina Zbytniewska Euractiv, Europe
Kosovo & Serbia --  the EU needs to hurry up  - NewsMavens
President Aleksandar Vučić , Federica Mogherini,,President Hashim Thaçi, YouTube

If the EU really cares for the region, it had better hurry up with the integration process. Only this way can it revive the legacy of “exporting stability” evoked by Jean-Claude Juncker in his State of the Union speech (September 12). And prevent losing this region by default.

Kosovo announced its independence from Serbia a decade ago. However, it is still a contentious area --not recognized by 82 UN countries, including 5 EU member states: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain. Officially, the EU maintains a neutral status on this issue. Despite this “existential controversy” within the EU, Brussels has mediated the now 7-year-old dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. And this dialogue is hailed as a major achievement for European foreign policy. Yet this is a difficult claim to back.

In August, unexpectedly -- after 16 months of stalemate in the EU-managed “normalization” talks --

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi floated the idea of resolving the frozen conflict between the two countries via a land swap involving the predominantly Serb northern Kosovo and Preševo Valley in southern Serbia (known by Albanians as Eastern Kosovo).

Controversial as it was, the proposal achieved an international acceptance that turned a blind eye to the Pandora’s box of territorial claims that it could open -- in the region and further abroad.

It might be worth adding that a territorial exchange was completely out of the question only 2 months earlier.

However, it now turns out that the international community welcomes ANY proposal whatsoever that could in any way foreshadow a potential solution.

Even if it carried the prospect of reigniting territorial and ethnic claims and hostilities within the region and beyond. For instance, in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina or in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Or between Serbia and Kosovo themselves.

The two presidents put forward this provocative offer because they were well aware of the fact that the EU is in a hurry, as Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, who has personally led the “facilitation” talks, is leaving office in just 8 months -- Bojan Elek from the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy told me. And, as the running joke goes, if there is to be any hope of a Nobel Peace Prize for finally settling the spat, Mogherini, Vučić, and Thaçi must hurry.

It doesn't matter that it is a no-go proposal (if they allow that kind of precedent, the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be forced back in anymore). The two presidents got the international limelight they wanted even if they drew the blinds back home.

Vučić and Thaçi reached this compromise primarily to gain points at home by showing that they can dictate terms to the international community.

After 7 years of painstaking EU-facilitated talks, the two men met for lunch once or twice and bilaterally decided to swap territories. They did not consult the EU, nor their governments, parliaments or citizens. The idea surprised everyone and, of course, lacked democratic legitimacy. It was even effectively turned down in Kosovo.

For both Serbia and Kosovo, as for all 6 Western Balkan states, EU accession is the primary foreign policy goal. And this fact strongly increases the EU’s power to demand real results in the ongoing dialogue, with potential accession as the Holy Grail. However, Vučić cleverly attempted to seize the cup recently by exploiting the EU’s indecision and demanding that any deal with Kosovo must lead to accession for Serbia in 2025.

Even if the EU doesn’t go for Vučić's unsubtle play, Western Balkan enlargement is not only a sine qua non for the region’s democratic development, peace and prospective prosperity. It is also a sine qua non for the EU itself.

If it wants to not just “export stability” but also be “an architect of tomorrow's world”, to quote Juncker’s State of the Union, it needs to turn nice words and foggy promises into deeds. European integration will be the best guarantee of stability in the Balkan region. And the EU's best guarantee  that other global players -- China, Russia or the United Arab Emirates -- do not come as a Trojan Horse via its backdoor.

In the end, the 6 Western Balkan states account for just 18 million people and have a GDP equalling Slovakia’s. It is not a big deal to accommodate them, but they do have the definite potential of becoming a big deal if we wash our hands of their problems as we do now. Let’s keep this genie in the EU bottle.

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