One-on-one | Dialogue

Visions of the dialogue (I)

By - 28.09.2021

The view from Brussels.

Dialogue. For anyone in Kosovo, as well as perhaps in Serbia, the word conveys a very specific meaning. For the last decade there has been one never ending dialogue, the dialogue. That is, of course, the Brussels dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, or as it is formally known, the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina.

Launched in March 2011, the dialogue aims to achieve “a comprehensive legally-binding agreement addressing all outstanding issues in order for Kosovo and Serbia to progress on their European paths, create new opportunities and improve the lives of the people.”

The last decade has seen its fair share of meetings and historic summits, of breakthroughs and breakdowns. Initially a slew of technical agreements and compromises were signed dealing with telecommunications, border management and education, to name a few. But many of the agreements were only partially implemented and the process has been plagued from the beginning by a lack of transparency.

For a time it seemed a lot was happening, but nothing was changing. A land swap proposal in 2018 sparked fears across Europe of renewed ethnic strife. The U.S. appointed their own special envoy and the EU responded in kind. The White House brokered a half-baked agreement between the parties, to the dismay of Brussels. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, sensationalist non-papers and general enlargement fatigue in the region, the dialogue plods on.

Kosovo’s brief tariffs on Serbian goods put a halt to discussions for a while, but with clear political majorities in power in Kosovo and Serbia, some suggested that the time could be right for a breakthrough. Now with the recent row regarding license plates heightening tensions in Kosovo’s north, there is yet another obstacle on the path to resolution.

As both sides rear for yet another round, K2.0 asks: what does the dialogue look like today? How did we get here and where are we going?

Before high-level discussions resume, we are bringing you informed conversations from people with unique and varied perspectives on the dialogue. This is the first set of interviews in a series of three. The conversations took place in early to mid-September, prior to the latest reignition of tensions in Kosovo’s north.

In this set of interviews we hear from two EU politicians whose work is intimately tied to the region and the dialogue, Members of the European Parliament (MEP) working directly with Serbia and Kosovo.

Viola von Cramon is a German MEP, part of the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament. She is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Delegation to the EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee. She is also the rapporteur for Kosovo. 

Vladimír Bilčík is a Slovak MEP with the European People’s Party. He chairs the Delegation to the EU-Montenegro Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee and is a member of the Delegation to the EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee. He is also the rapporteur for Serbia.

K2.0: Where would you say the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia stands now? Would you label the process so far as a success?

Vladimír Bilčík: At the moment we are well-organized and there is a clear structure. There is a clear line of responsibility with the facilitator, Miroslav Lajčák, having the support of all EU institutions and Member States. We also have an established process at both the working levels, via chief negotiators, and at the highest political level.

Of course, the dialogue is taking place in a particular context determined by the politics in Belgrade and Prishtina. We recently had elections in Kosovo, which changed the landscape politically. I think there are a number of question marks about the overall commitment to and expectations from the dialogue on the side of Prishtina. At the same time, Belgrade is getting ready for elections next spring. 

Politics has very important consequences for the way the dialogue is conducted and framed. It will always play a crucial role. However, there are a number of issues related to the practicalities of daily life for the people in Kosovo which I think should be of interest regardless of where we are in the electoral cycle or in terms of leadership. This dialogue is very much tied to a European perspective of the region. 

Viola Von Cramon: The situation with the dialogue is somewhat better now, primarily thanks to the work of the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue Miroslav Lajčák, as there has been momentum created in 2020 through regular meetings on both political and technical levels. Besides, both sides of the Atlantic are realigned and committed to supporting the dialogue, thus I am optimistic that this opportunity shall be used by both Belgrade and Prishtina.

I understand that many have expected quick-fix results and no one has ever said that these were going to be easy talks. However, the dialogue has delivered some tangible results and allowed for the movement of goods and people between Kosovo and Serbia, which is one of its most palpable results. Hence, I would call it a limited success which could have been far greater if the domestic political will for it was in place.

Reports indicate that most citizens in both countries feel they have not benefited from the dialogue. Even greater numbers complained that they did not know enough about it. The dialogue has been defined as top-down and elite-driven. Would you agree with that perception? Is there a place for citizens and the civil society in the process? 

Von Cramon: The dialogue was lacking in inclusiveness from the onset and this has not been remedied yet. The attempt to have a national dialogue on Kosovo in Serbia in 2019 was a farce and was unfortunately a missed opportunity, while the internal dialogue in Kosovo with the local Serbs has never started. 

It is absolutely necessary to have nation-wide platforms that include citizens, civil society organizations as well as minority communities. It is the only way to ensure that the process is transparent and to make sure that the agreed-upon deals will be accepted and implemented.

Bilčik: In any negotiation, nothing is final until everything is agreed. This is particularly challenging in a dialogue that extends for a long period of time. I understand why some people may feel impatient or that they do not know enough. I think part of it is a matter of communication, because, I have said it already, this is not about a specific agreement, but about a lot of [ongoing] practical issues that the dialogue can, should be and in fact is tackling. 

There are a lot of emotions tied to this dialogue, which is often presented in public debate as a single-issue negotiation. I think it is important to look at ways of putting these practical questions at the forefront, particularly regarding what has already been achieved and what is still in the pipeline. 

The process is elite driven, and that is only natural. The elites have the mandate of the people, whom they represent. At the moment the leadership both in Belgrade and in Prishtina have very strong mandates with clear majorities in parliament and public support. That is good, it reflects the legitimacy of both leaders at the forefront of the dialogue.

However, I think that there is room for improvement in terms of communication. The public in Serbia and in Kosovo can have a clearer picture of what is at stake and what is being discussed, especially for the sake of the people and their daily lives. This is not a single-issue dialogue, it is a complex exercise that involves a number of difficult questions.

The region is experiencing some accession fatigue. This is particularly true for Kosovo, where some are arguing that after the EU “failed to deliver” in the visa liberalization process, there is no reason to prioritize a dialogue that is seen mostly as a European priority. Do you think this issue has had an effect on the EU’s standing as a facilitator? Should the EU worry about regaining any lost trust?

Bilčik: Absolutely, we should be concerned and take this seriously. The simple and easy answer to those who say “why should we be doing this if you are not doing what you promised?” is that you are not doing it for the sake of our promise, but for yourself. Now that is all nice and well, but we know that in political reality that might not be a sufficient incentive for politicians in power. 

Of course, we need to cater the message to a variety of interests and immediate domestic situations. That is where a strategic vision about changing the quality of public life is often tied to big strategic goals, and the European perspective offers that strategic goal. 

Acknowledging the power of the perspective, I think it is important that the people in the region believe in it. I can see how that belief is getting weaker and I say this repeatedly, we, the EU, need to show that we are serious.

We should have opened negotiations with both Skopje and Tirana already, months ago. I would even say a couple of years ago.

Opening accession talks is like allowing a country that is trying to run a marathon to enter the stadium. If we are not even allowing them to do that, leaving them out, I can see why politicians and the public would be frustrated.

I think we can and should do more to pass the ball to our partners in the Western Balkans and give them a good opportunity to show that they are serious about their commitments. Opening accession negotiations, opening chapters and clusters is really a way to provide for more incentives. 

I think that the EU, at various levels,  should be much better at communicating our help, our support, our story. Unfortunately, Russia and China are doing a much more effective job, although they are bringing a lot less to the region. This is also part of a wider competition. If we lose the hearts and minds of the elites and the public in the Western Balkans, we risk losing the region to powers that are direct rivals and see the world very differently from how we see it in Brussels.

Local leaders have to do their homework, but they also have to be given the opportunity to do it through the right incentives. I do not think we are using all the tools we have available. 

The European Parliament is clearly committed to the European perspective, but there are a number of problems with some Member States.

Of course, in the case of Kosovo the issue is visa liberalization. I think this is a must, it is long overdue and it is a shame it has not been done. I see this as a small political step for us in the EU but a potential huge win in terms of hearts and minds in the region, and in particular in Kosovo.

Von Cramon: The long-standing issue of visa liberalization is very much damaging for our reputation. I fully share the frustration of the people in Kosovo. I have been saying to my colleagues at the European Parliament that this goes beyond the issue of visa-free regime and does not relate to the benchmarks or the demarcation of borders. 

How can we demand anything from accession countries if we are not delivering? We ask for something while Kosovo has met all benchmarks, yet, we just do not keep our promise. If now we request some reforms from any government of the Western Balkans with some promised “carrots,” why should they believe that we would give them those carrots? So, I urge once again France and the Netherlands, which are still hesitant, to finally deliver on the much-deserved visa liberalization.

While we often hear that Serbia has a high chance of becoming an EU Member State, European leaders are exceptionally careful when talking about Kosovo’s “European perspective.” What are we to understand from that? Is there a future for Kosovo in the European Union?

Von Cramon: I have always been very clear that Kosovo does have the European perspective and upon meeting the membership criteria, it should become a fully-fledged member of the EU. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of the European Parliament repeatedly supports an independent Kosovo with a clear EU accession perspective and I do not see any change in that respect. 

As soon as the normalization agreement is reached in the scope of the EU-led dialogue, I strongly believe that it will widely open the door of EU accession to both Kosovo and Serbia.

Bilčík: The European perspectives for Kosovo and for Serbia are the same. They are at different stages of the process, but they are the same. Of course, Kosovo has more work to do on its European path, and this goes right back to my basic point about commitment. I think that if the dialogue indeed advances and is ultimately completed, it could be a game changer both for Belgrade and Prishtina. 

I think this is an important part of what we are talking about; there is only one European perspective for the Western Balkans, as a region, and this concerns all the capitals. I do believe that if we unlock the accession negotiations, that will make the discussion among the regional leaders a different ball game. 

We need to see a new dynamic with the opening of talks, chapters and clusters, but ideally with closures. What counts is closing open chapters; Montenegro has opened all the chapters but has been stuck now for months without closing any.

When the leaders see that it pays to invest in reforms, that it pays to invest in the European perspective, I believe that story should also apply to Prishtina. I do not see any difference there. I understand that the starting line is different, but the process and the endgame is the same for everybody.

Just to clarify, this endgame is full membership of the Western Balkans in the European Union. I believe in that, but we do not have a timeframe; there is a regatta principle, everybody moves at their own pace. It is very complicated and it is a different process from what we had in East and Central Europe because of the wars of the 1990s.

At the same time, the stakes are a lot higher. If we do not succeed in these efforts, some of the ghosts from a not so distant past, but rather one that we all can remember, could haunt us. 

That is why I think all of us have a huge responsibility here, every leader in the region, but also those in the EU. I am convinced that if the EU cannot make a difference when it comes to the difficult issues in the Western Balkans, we will compromise our credibility as an international actor.

For perhaps the first time since the Brussels dialogue started, there are stable political majorities in both countries. Do you think of this situation as an opportunity or an obstacle? How can the EU use this to move the process forward?

Von Cramon: Political stability is indeed quintessential for sustainable negotiations and, more importantly, the implementation of agreements. It takes two to tango, and I would like to see the two sides taking more political responsibility and courage for necessary compromises. 

The EU is there to facilitate the dialogue and oversee the implementation of the agreed provisions, but cannot impose a solution. Yet, the EU strictly measures the progress in the dialogue as one of the main political conditions for the progress on their respective EU paths. 

In that sense, I would like to see that the disbursement of EU funds to these countries is also conditioned with the dialogue progress as it is one of the ways the EU can put its weight behind the dialogue in order to have tangible results. 

Bilčik: Those majorities are important, in fact they are essential both for the negotiation and the successful implementation of any outcome. Having said this, of course the majorities have to share at least a basic commitment to the dialogue.

I understand, of course, that the priorities are different in Belgrade and in Prishtina. I think there are a number of question marks, particularly tied to Prime Minister Kurti’s overall stance when it comes to the dialogue. 

But the fact that he and President Vučić have been able to meet and are committed to continue talking to each other, even if the [discussion] has been far from easy, is a good sign.

I know the dialogue is difficult but I do not see an alternative to it. I do not see how we could go around it, given all that has happened, and what has been accomplished already between Belgrade and Prishtina. So many other decisions and issues are politically tied to the dialogue and its success, I hope this is fully realized by the political leadership in Belgrade and in Prishtina.

In terms of the relationship between Albanians and Serbs within Kosovo, the reality on the ground has stabilized since 2011. Though there are periodic flare-ups of political crisis, tensions are on the whole lower and a number of Serbian structures in Kosovo have been integrated into the national framework. Do you think the current approach reflects the situation nowadays? Is it adequate for the objectives of the dialogue?

Bilčik: As you said, we have already had some degree of success. This is an important healing process; it is never easy to discuss difficult issues. We continue to have a healing process across the European Union since the Second World War. This is the whole point of the project, which is based on Franco-German Rapprochement. 

European politics is never easy, but the idea that the ghosts of the past would be haunting us again is what is pushing us forward with positive agendas and positive decisions. 

Much is at stake. Talking about the commitment to the dialogue, there is no alternative. There is not going to be some sort of magic formula to solve these issues; no one is going to step in and solve them in a more amicable manner or bring ready-made solutions. 

Commitment, patience and also communication on the process and its achievements [are needed]. As you said, the atmosphere across Kosovo is different now than how it was ten years ago. That is important and we should acknowledge that. All of those things should encourage us to make further progress and headway. 

Von Cramon: I would disagree, as we witness the rising tensions and attacks along ethnic lines between Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs, especially in the returnee communities. The political elites in Prishtina and Belgrade have to ensure that all citizens are protected and safe, irrespective of their ethnic or religious background. Furthermore, the integrated institutional framework in Kosovo should be used to start the much-needed internal dialogue with the Serb community and assure that security challenges are tackled. 

In September 2020, Kosovo and Serbia signed an “Economic Deal” in the White House. What do you think the role of the U.S. should be in these talks?

Von Cramon: The White House deal was created in times when the coordination between trans-Atlantic allies was not at its highest point. Unfortunately, it was a unilateral action which left the EU — which leads the dialogue and bears the political responsibility for its success — out in the cold. 

However, the situation has fundamentally changed with the new administration. Both the EU and the U.S. have now aligned their approach towards the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. Thus, I hope the U.S. will meaningfully contribute with its political leverage to the overcoming of differences between Prishtina and Belgrade. 

Bilčík: The EU should play a leading role. It is very clear from a number of U.N. Resolutions and other international documents. The problems the dialogue tackles are outstanding issues from the past and of course the future of both Belgrade and Prishtina lies in Europe, within EU institutions. I think this is clear everywhere, also in Washington. 

However, the U.S. should be engaged; this dialogue will succeed only if and when both Brussels and Washington paddle in the same direction, share the same strategic goals and support each other. I think it has been quite important to see, especially since the takeover by the Biden administration in Washington, how there has been a clear purpose to support EU efforts. 

I would say the EU’s role is essential and indispensable, but its leadership needs strong support and complementary force from the U.S. I do not think the U.S. could ever replace the EU in the process, but the U.S. should  support the EU. 

I think this coordinated effort is now taking place. You could see it from public appearances, the intensity of relations and from public communications. For example, Palmer and Lajčák had their joint tour in the region. I think we may see certain things in the Western Balkans differently from Brussels and from Washington, but when it comes to the dialogue, we fundamentally share the same goals. 

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The conversations were conducted in English.

Feature image: K2.0.