Outside the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, opportunities for increased political cooperation between the two countries are few and far between. Much of the rhetoric beyond the dialogue is belligerent, leaving little room – if any – for political cooperation to advance. When opportunities arise, they tend to be stymied by diverging views about the value of such cooperation, thereby undermining the process itself. The countries’ leaderships will need to change their mindsets to avail of the many of benefits that cooperation beyond the dialogue process and as a pre-condition for EU membership will bring.
The differences between the parties are evident in the views of Kosovo’s and Serbia’s governments on the goals of the negotiations. For Kosovo, the normalisation of relations with Serbia will bring about recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign state. This would allow Kosovo to become a member of more regional and international organisations. It would also accelerate Kosovo’s integration into the European Union. For Serbia, however, the dialogue has come to be equated with the establishment of an Association of Serbian Municipalities (ASM), which represents just one of the 33 agreements reached in Brussels in the last decade. Moreover, Kosovo’s constitutional court has ruled that many of the provisions for the ASM are not in line with the country’s constitution.
But for Kosovo and Serbia to normalise their relations and for political cooperation to advance, they need to reach a comprehensive and legally binding agreement. This should address all the outstanding issues and pave the way for both countries’ accession to the EU.
Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic and his government, however, have refused to participate in the EU’s sanctions regime against Russia, even forging closer ties with the country since its all-out invasion of Ukraine. Serbia’s state-controlled media, meanwhile, portrays the union in negative light. This has contributed to a considerable drop in support for EU membership among the Serbian public. Yet, as has been clear since the EU Western Balkans summit in Thessaloniki in 2003, the future of both Kosovo and Serbia still lies within the union.
The two parties will need to establish good neighbourly relations to enable this. The EU has learned its lesson from past disputes between Balkans states, most recently Bulgaria’s now-resolved blocking of the EU’s accession talks with North Macedonia – and has long made clear that addressing such bilateral quarrels it will be necessary for the successful accession of Western Balkans countries.
The disputes have also had a detrimental effect in the Western Balkans, leading to mistrust between countries and undermining progress in regional initiatives. For Kosovo particularly, disagreements related to its participation in regional initiatives have resulted in the lowest level of representation among all the Western Balkans states.
In 2012, Kosovo and Serbia signed an EU-brokered agreement on regional representation and cooperation. The purpose of this agreement was to remove all the obstacles preventing Kosovo from joining regional organisations and initiatives, as well as enable the country to have its own voice in such organisations. Technically, Kosovo gained membership of initiatives such as the Regional Cooperation Council, the Migration Asylum Refugee Regional Initiative, and the Regional School of Public Administration. Kosovo’s membership was – as agreed in Brussels – marked by an asterisk to denote its lack of recognition by other countries. And yet, regional representation for Kosovo did not fully materialise. Indeed, almost a decade after the conclusion of the agreement, Kosovo remains the only Western Balkans country still locked out of several regional organisations.
Beyond the Western Balkans, Serbia has engaged in intense lobbying efforts against Kosovo’s accession to any international organisation. This has even been the case when Kosovo’s membership would improve the security and stability of the entire Balkans region and the European continent. Part of the ‘Washington agreement’ signed between Kosovo and Serbia in September 2020, was a one-year moratorium on Serbia’s de-recognition efforts. In return, Kosovo would not seek membership of international organisations over the same time period. Not long after the moratorium ended, Kosovo’s government filed an application for membership of the Council of Europe; Serbia, already a member of the council, wasted no time in mobilising against Kosovo’s accession, thereby undermining EU-facilitated agreements. Kosovo remains blocked from the Council of Europe, as well as other organisations including UNESCO, Interpol, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Membership of regional and, especially, international organisations would provide Kosovo with the opportunity to enhance its international standing. Beyond that, it would strengthen the position of minority communities in Kosovo better than any other mechanism. For example, support in Serbia for Kosovo’s bid for membership of the Council of Europe – Europe’s human rights watchdog – could help further promote the rights of the Serbian community in Kosovo. As a member of the council, all Kosovo’s citizens would be able to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights, including minority communities. Similarly, Kosovo’s membership of Interpol would benefit the entire Western Balkans region through the sharing of real-time information to prevent and fight transnational crime.
Both parties risk overlooking these and many other benefits if they view political cooperation a precondition for, rather than an opportunity to, advance their relations with each other, the rest of the Western Balkans countries, and the EU. The ‘Berlin Process’, an EU initiative to strengthen ties between Western Balkans states, provides many such opportunities. These include plans for a Connectivity Agenda, which will link Western Balkans countries with one other and with the EU through infrastructure policy; and a Common Regional Market, centred around the four freedoms of people, goods, services, and capital – which aims to approximate Western Balkans countries to the EU single market. This improved economic cooperation between the Western Balkans states will enhance the region’s growth and competitiveness in the European and global economy.
A deal centred on mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia would propel the implementation of existing agreements. It would also improve prospects for cooperation on other matters. Above all, the aim of any normalisation agreement is to improve citizens’ lives and enhance the security, stability, and prosperity of the entire Western Balkans region. Until that agreement is reached, however, the opportunities for ‘successful’ political cooperation remain limited.
Shqipe Mjekiqi Sadiku is Vice Chair of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and Chair of the Department on Foreign Policy. She lectures Public Policy at the University for Business and Technology (UBT) in Prishtina. She has previously served as Senior Political Advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Kosovo and Advisor on European Integration to the President of Kosovo. She holds a PhD in Political Science from Trinity College Dublin and has been teaching a number of Political Science courses both in Prishtina and Dublin for the last 15 years.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.