Time for the EU to Refocus on Kosovo and the Region

A moins d’un mois des élections législatives du 6 octobre au Kosovo, provoquées par la démission du premier ministre Ramush Haradinaj et la dissolution du Parlement, le chercheur Andreas Wittkowsky, chef du projet Paix et Sécurité au Centre pour les opérations internationales de paix de Berlin, invite l’Union européenne à s’engager plus activement dans la région pour permettre une relance du dialogue entre les deux pays. Il attend du nouveau haut représentant de l’UE pour la politique étrangère qu’il joue son rôle de médiateur entre la Serbie et le Kosovo, au moment où la question d’un échange de territoires suscite de nombreuses réserves de part et d’autre. Il estime que la crédibilité des institutions européennes est en jeu.

La Déclaration d’indépendance du Kosovo le 21 mai 2009, Hashim Thaçi et Jo Biden
Office of Prime Minister of Kosovo/ Wikimedia

Bambi Plazma biscuits have all but disappeared from the shelves of Kosovo’s shops.
Kosovar demand for the famous ladyfingers, made in Serbia, did not disappear in the dark years of Slobodan Milošević’s reign, in the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, or even during the spat over Kosovo’s independence.
If the biscuits are no longer available today, it is a sign of how deep the rift currently is between Pristina and Belgrade.
One year ago, Hashim Thaçi and Aleksandar Vučić, the respective presidents of Kosovo and Serbia, proposed to “correct” their shared border. What it really meant was a land swap. It proved to be surprisingly unpopular, both in Kosovo and in Serbia, albeit for different reasons.
In Kosovo, the plan met the fierce resistance of then prime minister Ramush Haradinaj. In an attempt to torpedo a prospective deal between the presidents, his government introduced a 100 percent import tax on goods originating from Serbia. This prohibitive tax hit Serbia’s exporters to Kosovo hard, as they still had a major market share. It also poisoned the political rhetoric between the two countries.
In return, Serbia stepped up its campaign to block Kosovo’s access to international institutions, lobbying third countries to undo their recognition of Kosovo.
Meanwhile, Haradinaj was unexpectedly summoned to The Hague in July for questioning over alleged war crimes. As most Kosovars perceived this to be politically motivated by his resistance to the land swap, the prime minister saw a political opportunity and stepped down, betting on early elections—which have since been confirmed for October 6.
But widespread expectations in Pristina are that the debate over the land swap is not over yet, and this is not good news for most Kosovars.
If things have come this far it is because of increasingly conflicting international signals.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton expressed sympathy for a land swap early on and declared that his country would not object to a mutually agreed deal. But if his position was built on the assumption that such a solution would bring stability and enable the United States to instead concentrate on other, more burning foreign policy issues, it might turn out as a triple gross miscalculation.
First, Kosovar nation-building has been successful, and large parts of the Albanian community in Kosovo now see a land swap as treason. More radical elements are ready to resort to violence to prevent such a deal from happening.
Second, the proposal sent shock waves through the whole region. Politicians in the neighborhood, but also in two bigger countries further east, China and Russia, follow the developments with great interest. Redrawing borders risks a domino effect not only in the region, but potentially beyond it.
Third, a U-turn in U.S. policy will not be perceived as a sign of strength. On the contrary : it is unlikely to bring the United States more friends in Belgrade or Pristina.
As for the EU, its credibility as a key actor for peace and stability in the region is also seriously damaged. The EU’s outgoing foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, had signaled that a land swap could be acceptable, thereby giving up the mantra of the past two decades that border changes were not in the cards.
Furthermore, already in 2018 the European Commission confirmed that Kosovo had fulfilled the requirements to obtain visa-free travel. However, member states held back from implementing it. The European Council also refrained from opening the intended membership talks with North Macedonia, despite the country having gone through a decades-long, painstaking process to come to terms with Greece and finally change its constitutional name.
The arguments by enlargement skeptics are valid : the EU needs to undergo substantial internal changes before accepting new members, so that these can contribute to a strengthened rather than a weakened union.
But simply suspending the Thessaloniki agenda for the Western Balkans and not living up to the EU’s commitments is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It will sustainably damage EU foreign policy with negative consequences for the future.
On August 13, in a rare display of unity these days, the United States, the UK, France, Germany, and Italy (also known as the Quint) issued a joint statement, stressing their support to the full normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia through a “comprehensive, politically sustainable, and legally binding agreement that contributes to regional stability”.
The Quint called on both countries to reengage in the EU-mediated dialogue between them, which has remained dormant for almost two years. Pristina is to give up on the 100 percent tariff, Belgrade on its non-recognition campaign.
Given that Kosovo is heading for elections in October, and Serbia in no later than April 2020, a quick fix is overly optimistic. But the revived Quint support is certainly something to build on.
With a new EU foreign policy chief taking office soon, it is high time to review the format of the dialogue. So far, it has followed the logic of a piecemeal approach in which the parties agreed on specific issues, leaving the mutual recognition issue open to the very end. Some international observers suggest that the EU should appoint a special envoy to support the dialogue.
Most importantly, what’s needed is a sharpened focus and political support for the wanted agreement.
The EU also needs to regain its lost credibility by showing that its soft-power instruments are still there. In particular, this is about the visa liberalization for Kosovo and the opening of membership talks with North Macedonia.
As the EU’s position remains inevitably weakened by the fact that five of its members have not recognized Kosovo, external political support for the dialogue remains crucial.
In short, the EU and the United States should emphasize their common interest in bringing the dialogue to a successful conclusion, while protecting the current borders in the Western Balkans.
It is a matter of regional stability. And an issue of transatlantic relevance.