Perspectives | Politics

Brussels based talks are a ‘Dialogue of the Deaf’

By - 23.02.2017

The EU-mediated negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia have become obstructed. How can they progress in 2017?

The ‘normalization of relations’ between Serbia and Kosovo was, and continues to be after more than three years, a difficult process. Among experts, there is a dominant perception that the Brussels Agreement has not resolved a number of issues surrounding sovereignty, citizenship, and most importantly, the integration of local Serbs into Kosovar society and its political establishment.

The latter concern is illustrated by failures surrounding the establishment of an Association of Serb Municipalities. An agreement over the general principles for an Association was reached on Aug. 25, 2015, after a tense summer of slow negotiations. However, the agreement has never been ratified by the Kosovar parliament, due to intense public and political opposition.

The results of the agreements, made nearly 18 months ago, were expected to already be implemented by this point. It was clear that the negotiations surrounding the Association carry a special political weight for all sides, but the whole process has reached a worrying standstill.

The stakeholders in the dialogue do not seem to hear each other’s needs and expectations, and the Brussels-based talks appear to have turned into a ‘dialogue of the deaf,’ partly due to multiple misunderstandings between the mediator (the EU) and the two sides of the negotiations. As for the status of the ‘normalization of relations,’ today, obstructionism has become the main ‘rule of the game.’

Trains and bridges that don’t connect, but divide

The start of 2017 has seen a deterioration of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, largely due to what has frequently been labelled as ‘the train issue.’ The incident, involving a train travelling between Belgrade and Mitrovica that was decorated with the phrase ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ translated into 21 different languages, created a new platform for revived ethnic tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, turning a ‘patriotic’ gesture into something close to a military threat.

The irony of this whole situation is that in their essence, bridges, just like trains, are symbols of communication.

In the aftermath of the incident, which aroused the attention of international media, there are fears that it might bring stagnation to the Brussels dialogue. However, the event did not come entirely out of the blue. The normalization process had already deteriorated due to similar previous episodes, and this type of inflammatory rhetoric has not been completely unusual.

The train incident came just a month after another symbolic gesture that promoted obstructionism in the dialogue: The wall erected on Dec. 8, 2016, on the banks of the Ibar river in Mitrovica. The construction of the wall stirred the already tense debate over details in the Brussels negotiated plan to remove barriers to free movement on the Mitrovica bridge. After the Mitrovica ‘wall’ incident, the train issue was simply ‘the cherry on top’ of a long line of provocative behavior which goes against the spirit of the Brussels Agreement.

The irony of this whole situation is that in their essence, bridges, just like trains, are symbols of communication, as their basic function is to connect, and to shorten or eliminate distances between people. In this situation, Serbia’s provocative gesture did not show any intention of ‘bridging’ the divided communities of Kosovar Albanians and Kosovar Serbs living in the north. Neither did Kosovo’s reaction of using special security forces, with a despatch of armored vehicles, that, for many outsiders, seemed like it would soon take a military turn.

Instead of connecting, this train became the opposite — a symbol of division, almost creating a ‘diplomatic incident’ and reviving the rhetoric of war. Many outsiders rightfully asked themselves how this could be possible after six years of mediation and ‘normalized relations.’

Could all the diplomatic efforts of the European External Action Service (EEAS) have been made in vain just because of an excessively decorated ‘patriotic’ train? This apparently ‘small’ incident casts doubt over whether the two governments share any intentions for ‘normalizing’ their approaches, particularly regarding the situation of Kosovar Serbs.

Future evolutions for 2017 — we agree to disagree

The EU’s diplomatic efforts of meditation were supposed to reduce tensions after the train incident, and the aggressive rhetoric that came with it. Now, the big challenge for Brussels is this: What should the EU do in 2017 to overcome this obstructed phase of the mediation process?

On Jan. 24, 2017, a high-level meeting between Kosovo and Serbia’s presidents and prime ministers took place in Brussels, under the framework of the Brussels dialogue. Another high-level meeting took place on Feb. 1, though neither meeting seemed to bring anything new, outside of ‘formal handshakes’ that look good in photos.

In the official (and highly elliptical) press statement issued by the EEAS after the meetings, Federica Mogherini reported that the participants “reconfirmed their full commitment” to continuing the dialogue, adding that she felt “encouraged by the constructive engagement shown by both sides.”

For anyone reading the daily newspapers or online op-eds from Serbia and Kosovo, these words seem meaningless, or even irritating. Those high-level meetings seem to take place in ivory towers — secret talks between politicians that repeat the same position over and over again, ever since 2013 when the first set of principles were agreed: “We commit to the process, but….”

Ignoring the bitter realities on the ground could undermine Brussels’ role in the negotiation process.

The EU is the actor expected to use the instrument of conditionality, which is the backbone of its Enlargement Strategy. The system of carrots and sticks is supposed to promote consensual behaviour, one that will engage the two former ‘enemies’ in a constructive approach to functional normalization.

But, in reality, we can see that in the seven years since the two parties started the whole process (after the International Court of Justice’s decision in 2010 that Kosovo’s declaration of independence had not violated international law), both Serbia and Kosovo have promoted their own instruments of conditionality. The whole process has become a game of egos, in which all three sides stipulate conditions, but none listen to the conditions of the others.

In this sense, I believe that the EU’s policy of so-called ‘constructive ambiguity’ has proved detrimental to the process. It builds more on ‘wishful thinking’ and unrealistic expectations, hoping that its conditionality, with its own system of rewards and punishments will automatically dismantle the other two parallel systems of conditionality.

Ignoring the bitter realities on the ground could undermine Brussels’ role in the negotiation process, and add to the already powerful legacy of tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. The EU needs to change its three-year long ‘wishful thinking’ model of negotiations (which have treated the Brussels Agreement as a hopeful ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ rather than a realpolitik game of power).  

Every actor knows that after the Brussels Agreement was signed, the EU, Serbia and Kosovo have in fact mostly just agreed to disagree. And for each high-level meeting that followed, no matter the topic (car plates, cadastre, university diplomas or the Association) they have re-enacted the same conclusion — we agree to disagree.

Bridging the differences

The divided city of Mitrovica remains as a symbol of all the ‘unresolved issues’ and ethnic tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. Northern Mitrovica, and the steel bridge over the Ibar river, have long been a sore point of Prishtina’s efforts, now mediated by Brussels, to bring the entire territory of Kosovo under its jurisdiction — and to dismantle illegal, parallel structures; a process that has long been resisted by the majority of residents on the northern side of the Ibar.

The EU’s mediation strategy of constructive ambiguity is proving itself to have destructive effects.

Looking at recent events with the wall and the train, it also stands as a barometer of what I referred to as ‘the dialogue of the deaf.’ The fact that citizens’ mobility on both sides is still restricted by various objects (be it undercover ‘peace parks,’ stones or walls) bears the same ambiguous message — we agree that we should not divide the city in two ethnic enclaves, but we disagree with people moving freely from one side to the other.

The source of this ambiguity is to be found in the ‘decisions behind closed doors’ attitude promoted by the Brussels dialogue format itself. The EU’s mediation strategy of constructive ambiguity is proving itself to have destructive effects.

I am convinced that all actors involved in this process, bureaucrats, diplomats, politicians and even the neglected group of ordinary citizens alike, are aware of the fact that the ‘normalization’ process between Serbia and Kosovo comes with some costs. But each of them wants to get a better price.

The EU’s strategy of perpetuating ambiguity and a lack of transparency in the dialogue perpetuates the hardline bargaining positions of both the Serbian and Kosovar leadership, who continue to mix domestic affairs and electoral messages with their hypocritical ‘commitment’ to EU conditionality.

The main problem is how these costs are perceived by each side — be it in material terms (economic losses, unemployment etc.), or in political terms (losing a part of the electorate that appreciates more nationalist messages than constructive, forward looking approaches).

The future of the dialogue

Even in the current context, which is stained by the bitter tastes of the wall and train issues, I still do not share the alarmist tones of recent analysts that warn about “a renewed war in the Balkans.”

Nevertheless, we need to be realistic — 2017 has the potential to bring more obstructionism to the normalization process. In this context, the biggest challenge for the implementation of the Aug. 25, 2015 agreement on the Association is accommodating this mix of interpretations that have hindered the expected results of the Brussels Agreement. But with the spectre of presidential elections in Serbia (in April), I think that there is little chance for the Association to be established this year.

In the aftermath of the wall and the train incident, the Association will continue to be a source of politicization and segregation. To overcome that, I think that the two governments need to show more political will to stay committed to the dialogue, for the sake of improving the living conditions of all people living in Kosovo.

Concrete elements and problem-solving mechanisms agreed on by both sides should be the focus of this process, instead of ‘abstract’ or opportunistic expectations that the dialogue will succeed only because of the promise of EU membership.

This article is part of wider research supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society, as part of the project “Building Knowledge of New Statehood in Southeast Europe: Understanding Kosovo’s Domestic and International Policy Considerations,” whose findings will be published soon.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.