Perspectives | Dialogue

A deal or a trap?

By - 24.04.2023

Is the EU’s focus on the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities all that it seems?

In “The Second Coming,” the Irish poet W.B. Yeats warned about the rise of regressive forces in the inter-war period and the imminent threat they posed to civilization. Reflecting on the contrast between the fanatical zeal of the extremists and the timidity of those with the power to repel them, he wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.” 

Today, as populist demagogues espouse violent nostalgia-fueled plans across the world, it seems the right time to re-invoke Yeats’ warning. The contrast between the lack of conviction among democratic leaders and the passionate intensity of authoritarianism is glaringly evident in the EU’s policy towards Serbia.  

An honest broker?

Following the EU-brokered summit between Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti in late February, EU negotiator Josep Borrell triumphantly declared: “we have an agreement.” But there was no agreement. Kurti endorsed the proposal and offered to sign it. Vučić did not. Nevertheless, Vučić’s refusal to sign the proposal or even discuss it further was presented in truly Orwellian terms by the EU, which announced proudly that there was now a consensus that “no further discussions are needed on the EU proposal.” 

The best that could be said about the summit was that Serbia had not openly rejected the proposal. That soon changed. Days later Vučić promised, “I will not sign this” and then stated that he and the other parties “did not agree.” He then declared that he will only implement the parts of the proposal that suit Serbia’s interests. Later he said, “I don’t want to sign any international legally binding documents with Kosovo,” and specifically ruled out allowing Kosovo to join the U.N., in direct violation of Article 4 of the proposal which states, “Serbia will not object to Kosovo’s membership in any international organisation.” 

Vučić emphasized that he has outlined his position directly to the international brokers. “I have clearly told them which [parts of the proposal] we will not accept. All of them… They see me being decisive, looking into their eyes and directly saying that ten times. What can they say?” Indeed, what has the EU said?  

While Vučić has been loud and clear, the silence from the EU has been deafening.

While Vučić has been loud and clear, the silence from the EU has been deafening. There has been no condemnation of Vučić, no acknowledgement that his statements amount to a fundamental rejection of the “agreement,” and certainly no warning against further utterances of this kind. In fact, despite Vučić’s rejection, the agreement was, the EU claimed perversely, “alive and kicking.” 

The EU’s muted response has unsurprisingly emboldened Vučić. Since the summit Vučić has, like a teenager whose parents have given up trying to exercise control, flaunted his freedom with ever more outrageous displays of petulance. 

He launched a tirade against NATO’s supposed attempt “to destroy our country” in 1999; claimed that a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” is underway against Kosovo Serbs; promised that Kosovo will remain part of Serbia as long as he is in power; and warned Serbs in Kosovo not to take part in the forthcoming local elections which he described as “fake, fraudulent” and a “sham.” He has also described Milan Radoičić — the vice president Srpska Lista, the main Serb political party in Kosovo, and who is recognized by the U.S. and the U.K. as the leader of an organized criminal group involved in murder and arms dealing — as “one our most capable and bravest sons.” Through it all, the EU has remained unmoved. 


The EU’s appeasement of Vučić predates the recent summit. The EU is aware of the Serbian government’s widely noted turn towards authoritarianism yet it has chosen to ignore it. The political liberties watchdog Freedom House’s “Global Freedom Score” for Serbia has plummeted from 76 out of a top score of 100 in 2017 to 60 in 2023. 

The organization noted that the 2022 Serbian elections were characterized by media bias and “numerous irregularities during the campaign and on election day,” and stated that “escalating harassment and violence in recent years [has] resulted in suppressed political representation of opposition parties.” Similar findings have been issued by a wide range of domestic and international NGOs including the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders. 

Incorporating a regime into the EU without first addressing the country's expressed desire for territorial expansion seems like a recipe for disaster.

These damning indictments have, however, been ignored because Brussels has evidently calculated that drawing Serbia into its orbit, and thereby extricating it from Moscow’s influence, will be good for the EU. 

But incorporating a regime into the EU without first addressing the country’s commitment to trampling upon human rights and democracy, their active involvement in destabilizing its neighbors (with Russian support), and their expressed desire for territorial expansion and irredentism seems like a recipe for disaster.

The Association Trap

The EU’s appeasement of Serbia will damage the EU itself, but more immediately it poses an imminent and profound risk to Kosovo. While the Serbian government’s behavior has been ignored, the EU has expended significant time and energy over the past two years criticizing the government of Kosovo, particularly for failing to implement the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities (ASM). Indeed, the ASM is destined to play a pivotal role in a trap that has been laid for Kosovo and which helps explain the EU’s desperation to move on from the February non-agreement and its determination to ignore Vučić’s subsequent repudiation of its tenets. 

The EU’s aim of incorporating Serbia requires a resolution of the dispute with Kosovo. Given Vučić’s position, it has been clear for many years that mutual recognition is impossible. The next best alternative is for Kosovo to give up on recognition and accede to some meaningless accord that allows the EU and Serbia to declare the issue resolved without actually addressing the status issue. While previous governments in Kosovo may have been persuaded to accept this, the election of Kurti shattered these hopes. 

Confronted by Kurti’s insistence that recognition be made a central issue, the EU has evidently opted to pursue a third option: fashion a scenario whereby the negotiations fail but Kosovo is framed as the “spoiler” allowing the courting of the “more reasonable” Serbia to continue.

The ASM is key to this scenario and it has achieved a prominence in the negotiations beyond its true value. 

Demands that Kosovo implement the ASM were the dominant refrain from EU and U.S. negotiators in the lead-up to the February summit. Soon after the “agreement,” the focus of the EU negotiators immediately shifted back to the agreement’s annex, specifically the provision relating to the rights of Kosovo Serbs. Given the extensive rights afforded to Kosovo Serbs under the constitution it is debatable whether the ASM is actually something the Serbian community really needs. In reality, the ASM’s importance stems more from the fact that it provides the EU and Serbia with a means by which to trap Kosovo. 

Implementing the ASM in its original form would fundamentally undermine Kosovo’s internal sovereignty and almost certainly bring down the Kurti government.

Thus, the next phase of the negotiations will be focused not on Serbia or the EU’s duties as outlined in the proposal and the implementation annex, but once again on demanding that Kosovo implement the ASM in its original form. Doing so would fundamentally undermine Kosovo’s internal sovereignty and almost certainly bring down the Kurti government. As such, the EU appears to be hoping that by focusing on the ASM, Kurti will be forced to reject the annex and thus become the “spoiler.” 

It is, sadly, highly likely that if this comes to pass, Kurti will be subjected to a sustained chorus of outrage from Brussels which will stand in sharp contrast to the shameful meek handwringing which has characterized the EU’s reaction to Vučić’s belligerent rhetoric to date. 

Kosovo is the most pro-EU country in the Western Balkans. While political, social and economic problems remain, it has made enormous strides in recent years to promote media freedom, encourage an active civil society, and consolidate a pluralist democracy with enhanced rights for minority communities. If Kosovo is cast aside by the EU in favor of the authoritarian Vučić and his toxic brand of sectarian nationalism, it will constitute one more illustration that the EU lacks conviction and is steadily losing the struggle against the forces of authoritarianism.


Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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