Perspectives | Dialogue

The EU must act to restore trust in its ability to mediate a Kosovo-Serbia agreement

By - 14.11.2018

European influence has gone backwards during Mogherini’s tenure.

In an effort to fully normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia, the EU launched, through its enlargement strategy, the idea of having a final agreement that would settle the two states’ disputes through a legally binding document.

It wasn’t clear then, and it isn’t clear now, what the EU meant with a legally binding agreement, because it didn’t follow up on how and when such an agreement might be achieved. Yet, the idea alone coupled with the news that an enlargement wave is due to happen in 2025 changed the whole perspective of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.

Serbia has expected that at the end of the dialogue it will become a full member of the EU, without recognizing Kosovo’s independence and without sacrificing its close relationship with Russia.

Everyone knows, besides Serbia, that there is a problem with such a vision, and the problem is that such positions are irreconcilable. Serbia cannot become an EU member if it has a disputed border with Kosovo or if its foreign policy is aligned with Moscow. The question here is why the EU isn’t more German about this. So far, only Germany has been clear about Serbia’s path to the EU.

Those who closely follow the EU’s foreign policy know that, for far too long now, the EU is divided and incoherent when it comes to the Balkans, and, if not taken seriously, this incoherence will have profound consequences that will be hard to reverse.

Some effects are already being manifested. The EU’s position in the region has been in decline since Mogherini became High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The EU’s failure to speak with one voice when it comes to the Balkans is not new, but what is new is the lack of will to do something about it.

The current lack of leadership and unity sends the signal that the EU is weak in the Balkans compared to the U.S. and Russia.

The High Representative’s job is to give the appearance that there is unity even when there is not. Catherine Ashton, Mogherini’s predecessor, did a great job in this regard. She was able to increase the EU’s influence in the Balkans during her tenure by being actively involved in the region, often visiting heads of state and inviting them to Brussels, and also speaking to the people.

She was perhaps the first EU representative who was able to make both Kosovo and Serbia believe that they no longer needed Washington (in the case of Kosovo) or Moscow (in the case of Serbia) at the negotiating table, because the EU was considered a trustworthy actor, capable of bringing about solutions.

The current lack of leadership and unity sends the signal that the EU is weak in the Balkans compared to the U.S. and Russia. The EU knows all too well how it failed to act with unity during the breakup of Yugoslavia, and it was the United States who took care of the mess in its own backyard. For Kosovo, it is all too natural to believe in the U.S. as a proven ally that can deliver results, but not in the EU, because the EU has failed Kosovo consistently.

Yet the EU is not doing anything to remedy such weaknesses. Instead of finding the problem and solving it, it continues to play the same old game that failed for so long and has left the region divided.

The EU cannot treat Kosovo and Serbia with the same approach because Serbia has far bigger problems than Kosovo. Serbia is the only country that does not hide its close cooperation with Russia; it has no intentions of joining NATO and has an aligned foreign policy with Moscow. It is time for the EU to admit that this is a problem, and to start talking about it.

There is no long-lasting peace and stability in the Balkans if the past is not reconciled. How can countries look forward with Serbia still grasping onto the ideas of the past, and not apologizing for its crimes. It is time to put the cards on the table and let Serbia choose its path.

If they choose Moscow, so be it, but the EU has to protect the ones who choose the EU and the values its stands for. Therefore, it has to come together, recognize Kosovo’s independence, protect its territorial integrity, and send a clear message to both Serbia and Russia that the EU is the future for the Balkans.

Mogherini made things worse.

Kosovo is perhaps the best example of both the EU’s success and failure when it comes to a common foreign policy. Back in 2011, for the first time, both Kosovo and Serbia agreed to leave the U.S. and Russia out of the negotiating table, and accept the EU as the sole mediator. This was a big step forward as the EU was never considered as a capable actor to deliver, and neither Serbia nor Kosovo had relied on EU in the recent past.

As High Representative, Ashton utilized a good combination of sticks and carrots through the EU’s enlargement strategy, which worked well in the case of Kosovo, though not so much in the case of Serbia. Her personal leadership also compensated to a large extent the lack of coherence, internal division and weakness of member states over the Balkans.

However, the EU was never able to deliver on its key promises made to Kosovo and Serbia, and it failed to unite in sending a clear message. Serbia ended up eating all the carrots while Kosovo were given the sticks. Serbia opened negotiations for membership without fully and truly implementing the already reached agreements, and to this day the EU has not yet delivered on its key promise on visa liberalization for Kosovo.

Failure to apply more pressure has created a comfortable space for Serbia to use Kosovo as a tool in its foreign policy in order to advance its EU agenda, as well as flaunting to the EU its close relationship with Russia.

The ‘Capability-expectations gap’ was further increased when Mogherini took the job. Mogherini made a tactical error by shifting the focus away from Balkans, taking for granted that progress was irreversible. Things slipped rapidly, with Serbia turning toward Russia and Kosovo toward the U.S. in order to compensate for the loss of attention from the EU.

It is time for the EU to be straight with Serbia and Kosovo about the future.

Mogherini’s weak role was put on display when Kosovo and Serbia’s leaders started to meet secretly in New York and not in Brussels. Kosovo’s President changed the narrative by referring more to the U.S. and visiting Washington often, while Serbia’s president started visiting Moscow and calling Putin over the phone about the Kosovo ‘problem.’

Mogherini sat on her hands and didn’t do anything about this. The EU did not act swiftly to restore trust and confidence among parties that the dialogue will yield results, and that the address is Brussels, and not Washington or Moscow, when it comes to solving crises in the Balkans.

Her lack of leadership has weakened the EU’s role and influence in the Balkans. It has also increased fears and doubts that the EU can ever come together and speak with one voice, not just among leaders, but among people in the Balkans as well.

It is time for the EU to be straight with Serbia and Kosovo about the future. Kosovo’s president Hashim Thaçi has started an intensive campaign of declarations over border corrections with Serbia while Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić recently mobilized the army to ‘intervene in Kosovo’ if needed. Such declarations and provocations seem to have gone unnoticed by Mogherini, since she hasn’t dismissed them.

The request made by the EU for a legally binding agreement should be clearer and more precise. It should be followed by a concrete plan that should not leave room for interpretation, neither from Kosovo nor from Serbia. Such an agreement should be in line with the reality in the Balkans. It should recognize the past and look towards the future, and must be in line with EU’s foreign policy and core values of democracy.

Feature image: Besnik Bajrami / K2.0.