The Western Balkans summit held in Zagreb on 6 May was supposed to be yet another milestone event for the region. It followed the Sofia Summit of 2018, which reiterated the European Union’s commitments to the Western Balkans, and the European Council’s decision in March 2020 to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. The pandemic may have upstaged other challenges at the Zagreb Summit, but there is still one burning issue in the region that the EU must address – an issue that was only briefly discussed at the video-conference that replaced an in-person meeting.
Due to external pressure from US envoy Richard Grenell, the idea of a land-swap agreement between Kosovo and Serbia has gained momentum. As such, there is an urgent need to restart the Brussels-led dialogue between the countries, despite the fact that the sides have not yet agreed on its main principles. What is clear is that it will be impossible to go back to business as usual – in terms of both a behind-the-scenes approach to reaching a deal, and the role the EU has played until recently. Under former EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, the European External Action Service was unable to convince a majority of member states to accept its strategy for dealing with the proposed land swap. The organisation has alienated most Kosovars by failing to provide them with visa liberalisation – and has stood by while Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic insulted the EU and praised China, Russia, or the United States (depending on the situation).
The EU can only break the deadlock in the dialogue if it takes a new course of action, one that runs along parallel technical and political tracks. This approach should involve parliaments and citizens in Serbia and Kosovo; stakeholders in the region such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia; the EU member states who are invested in the region – such as Germany and France, along with Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Greece – as well as the US and the United Nations. Ultimately, it is the EU’s responsibility to normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia in the long term. Therefore, the EU should set the principles of, and drive, the dialogue.
For Kosovo, the current political instability plays into the hands of the old guard within former guerrilla parties such as the Democratic League and the Democratic Party – with Grenell and Kosovo President Hashim Thaci leading the attempt to replace the government, which is led by Prime Minister Albin Kurti. Kosovo seems squeezed between an anti-EU elite and a population that considers Kurti to be a non-corrupt, pro-EU leader who is being illegitimately pushed out of office. If Thaci succeeds, and forms in June a government whose first task is to sign a deal with Serbia under Grenell’s auspices in the US, the EU will be forced to pick up the pieces and implement the agreement – whatever it terms may be.
The EU should maintain its support for the region in the fight against the effects of covid-19 and provide visa liberalisation to Kosovo
This would be a difficult start for the ambitious mission the EU has assigned to Special Representative Miroslav Lajcak, triggering a fierce reaction from Germany and other member states, while undermining the role of the Kosovo Force. It could create deep instability in Kosovo and the region, by driving the majority of Kosovars – who support Kurti’s government – to the streets and, perhaps, to violence. In this scenario, the EU would have to look for ways to limit Thaci’s influence on international issues. The EU’s leverage in Kosovo is real: half of the country’s budget comes from the bloc.
To avoid such instability, the EU should maintain its support for the region in the fight against the effects of covid-19 and provide visa liberalisation to Kosovo. Only then could the bloc try to persuade Kosovo’s political class to restart the dialogue. In the eyes of many Kosovars, the situation was made no easier by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s statement on the eve of the Zagreb Summit, in which he commented that he did not oppose a border change that had the agreement of both sides.
For Serbia, in contrast, the covid-19 crisis has helped Vucic consolidate his power. His strategy for winning the next parliamentary election may have slightly adjusted to a coronavirus-induced delay, but it essentially remains unchanged. With the election now scheduled for 21 June, the Serbian political timeline almost mirrors that in Kosovo. Meanwhile, the Serbian opposition has been unconvincing in its call for a boycott of the election, and has no unified or meaningful position on the dialogue. Smear campaigns against the opposition are gathering pace in government-controlled media outlets. And there has been little internal party opposition to Vucic since before the coronavirus crisis began.
Vucic is probably one of the very few politicians in Europe who can afford to think in the long term, due to the uncontested nature of his power. He has, therefore, probably calculated that negotiating over Kosovo is beneficial for Serbia no matter the outcome: negotiations keep Serbia on the ‘great chessboard’ and demonstrate Kosovo’s relative political dysfunction. For Belgrade, the land-swap agreement would have a smaller geographical scope than the previously proposed Association of Serb Municipalities, but would create deeper linkages in Serbia’s integration with northern Kosovo. Special rights and protection for religious sites should be another key element of any deal. However, as a border change is not a Serbian precondition for talks, Brussels should take this option off the table.
Montenegro and North Macedonia are against such a change, because they fear it could create unrest among their ethnic-Albanian minorities. Bosnia and Herzegovina has the same concern about the effect on its Serb minority. The land swap is a dream come true for all those who believe in ethnically uniform territories, an idea reminiscent of the Balkans in the 1990s. But the arrangement would have direct and bitter consequences for EU’s unity and its capacity to act in the region.
Unlike the US, which wants to quickly arrange a deal and forget about the Balkans, the EU can provide a long-term perspective to Serbia – economically, politically, and socially. Therefore, the appointment of Lajcak as envoy for the Western Balkans is a big step towards restarting the dialogue on the EU’s terms; it is also a sign of commitment to a proactive approach to, and a coherent course of action in, the region. In this, the EU should set out three main principles: the dialogue should have Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo as its end goal; should produce a solution that the populations of both countries accept and is not reached behind closed doors; and should provide an EU perspective to both Serbia and Kosovo.
It is crucial that Lajcak starts by positioning himself as a champion of visa liberalisation for Kosovo and of post-coronavirus economic assistance to the region. Between now and the Paris Summit that French President Emmanuel Macron plans to hold after the lockdown ends, Lajcak has time to prepare these next steps. A cautious approach is prudent in the current situation – but time is precious, as Washington will likely push forward its plans for Kosovo and Serbia before the US presidential election, thereby jeopardising regional stability in the EU’s southeastern neighbourhood.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.