Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell is poised to become the next high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, the European Union’s de facto foreign minister, in one of the most challenging times in the bloc’s history. The dramatic political photo finish in London’s approach to Brexit, Russia’s growing involvement in external – and, increasingly, internal – European affairs, and a range of volatile crises in the Middle East and North Africa will all demand the attention of the experienced Spanish diplomat as soon as he takes office.
Yet an issue far closer to Brussels may shape Borrell’s agenda in his first few months in the job – and may even have a profound impact on Spain’s future place in the European foreign policy landscape: the situation in Western Balkans. One important aspect of this situation is the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia, which has had an unusually large impact on the schedules and performances of Borrell’s predecessors. Once again, the Western Balkans quagmire will demand a lot of resources from an EU commissioner.
If the European Parliament confirms his nomination in November, Borrell will be the second Spaniard and the fourth representative of the body’s socialist grouping to lead the EU’s foreign policy efforts. It seems very unlikely that the current high representative, Federica Mogherini, will achieve any substantial rapprochement between the two old foes before then. Serbia has aggressively pursued a campaign to persuade third countries not to recognise Kosovo’s independence. It has done so with the help of Russia and a few special operators who have a history of involvement in corruption scandals. Serbia has also campaigned against Kosovo’s admission to multilateral organisations and sports bodies such as the International Olympic Committee, FIFA, UNESCO, and INTERPOL – a campaign that Madrid has strongly supported.
In response, Kosovo has imposed a 100 percent tariff on imports of goods from Serbia. The move prompted Serbia to suspend its dialogue with Kosovo. As a result, even Mogherini has joined the chorus of leaders predicting a return to conflict. “I see the risk of the dark forces of the past coming back, in terms of confrontation, even of conflict if the two sides continue facing off”, she stated on the margins of the recent Western Balkans summit in Berlin.
Yet there is some cause for cautious optimism that Borrell’s background will be useful in helping Kosovo and Serbia reach a final peace agreement. As political scientist Ignacio Molina recently argued, “Spain had a strong interest in Serbia and Kosovo resolving their differences”. He explains that Spain wants to achieve a settlement on their dispute as soon as possible because “its relative isolation as non-recogniser is damaging for Spanish influence in EU external action”.
Nonetheless, Borrell will have a severe disadvantage relative to his predecessors: for the first time ever, the high representative will not be able to credibly promise either side EU membership as an incentive. Although Spain has been supportive of EU enlargement, France and many other EU member states will block any substantive membership talks for years to come. Kosovo and Serbia will have to make peace for the sake of, well, peace.
Secondly, Borrell will inherit a deeply fractured Quint, comprising France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These five countries have been engaged in Balkan peace efforts since the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia. They agree on the basic premise of a future deal: Kosovo must become part of the United Nations and Serbia must be permitted to move forward with EU integration. However, while the US has shown a willingness to consider a mutually agreed exchange of territories as a part of a deal – and while France and Italy have warmed to the idea – Germany, supported by the UK, has vehemently opposed it, preferring a cold war solution modelled on the 1972 agreement between West Germany and East Germany.
Borrell’s stance on the issue remains unclear. He has sometimes indicated that Spain will accept a final settlement between Kosovo and Serbia even if this “included some form of territorial exchange”. On other occasions, he has reportedly said that he opposes land swaps.
Thirdly – and partly as a consequence of these international divisions – citizens of Kosovo have become more ambivalent than ever towards a future deal with Serbia. Kosovo President Hashim Thaci has indicated in negotiations with his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, that he would support a border demarcation process as part of a comprehensive deal. However, Ramush Haradinaj, who recently resigned as Kosovo’s prime minister, has adamantly opposed the move.
Yet EU efforts to achieve a legally binding final agreement between Pristina and Belgrade are far from doomed. Each of the key challenges outlined above has a silver lining. In both Pristina and Belgrade, there are actors who understand that, after decades of open hostility and war, they must end their conflict if they are to move forward in their respective nation-building efforts. Western Balkans countries now have to understand that, even if EU integration is further away than ever, the bloc will never bring countries with open bilateral issues – including unresolved border delineation – into the fold.
Moreover, despite the fractures running through the Western alliance, the fact remains that Berlin, Paris, and Washington are all committed to closing this particularly dark chapter in the Western Balkans’ history in the coming months. US President Donald Trump has even dangled the possibility of a Rose Garden treaty moment in front of Thaci and Vucic, while French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to help relaunch talks between the sides by hosting a high-level summit in Paris.
In any case, Borrell should not allow become lost in discussions about land swaps. The way in which Kosovo and Serbia agree on some acceptable form of border demarcation is only one part of a comprehensive deal. There are more important issues at stake: the livelihoods of people living in both countries, the process of reconciliation and economic cooperation, and cultural heritage and minority rights are all key components of a future deal.
The sides have already put in place many elements of a potential deal through the Ahtisaari Plan and the subsequent Brussels normalisation agreement. Kosovo and Serbia must codify the compromises they have reached in a final deal and implement them using a credible mechanism. The sine qua non of the agreement will be the endorsement of the UN Security Council. All the signs are that both China and Russia will accept a deal that Serbia approves (as will Spain).
Ultimately, Kosovo and Serbia need to engage in a focused, intensive process that involves the EU and has the support of the US, as well as the tacit approval of Russia. To facilitate this, Borrell should – as Macron has proposed – add depth to his dialogue team at the European External Action Service by appointing a powerful, Quint-backed special envoy who will maintain an even-handed approach towards negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia.
In 1992 then Spanish foreign minister Fernández Ordoñez commented that “Kosovo could be the next act of ‘the tragedy’ surrounding the collapse of Yugoslavia”. It would be nothing short of a glorious diplomatic victory for Spain if, almost 30 years later, another former Spanish foreign minister made a significant step towards ending such tragedies in Western Balkans once and for all. In the process, he would also help EU leaders achieve their key aim of “becoming more ‘united’ and ‘assertive’ on the global stage”.
Petrit Selimi is the former foreign minister of the Republic of Kosovo and a Marshall memorial fellow at German Marshall Fund of United States.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.