Trump’s Kosovo show: No big deal

The White House’s sloppy agreement does little to advance dialogue, and comes at a high price

Senior Policy Fellow
Michael Vadon CC BY

Despite the unpredictability that surrounded the negotiations, one thing was clear from the start about the much-hyped US effort to normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo: it would be light on substance and heavy on publicity.

So it came as no big surprise that the result – two separate documents signed by each party individually – reflected the superficiality and lack of planning involved. Essentially a restatement of things already agreed between Kosovo and Serbia, the primary purpose of Friday’s “deal” was not to advance dialogue but to advance US President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.

Kosovo and Serbia have jointly signed multiple agreements and proclamations in the past. And yet, for all the supposed high-level political attention paid to this agreement, US Ambassador Richard Grenell couldn’t get the parties to issue a unified statement – raising questions about the legal status of the signed documents and reflecting a degree of sloppiness that comes with prioritising speed and showiness over content.

Unsurprisingly, each side left the meeting armed with their own narrative for domestic consumption. The White House claimed victory in advancing the peace process in a long-standing conflict. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic interpreted the event as a bilateral meeting with Washington aimed at improving bilateral relations. Kosovo, meanwhile, chalked it up to a win because it gained recognition from Israel.

None of these supposed victories move the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue forward in any respect.

Contrary to Grenell’s claim that the US had landed on something “new” and “creative”, most of the pledges already exist within the framework of the EU negotiations and the Berlin process, or as independent initiatives – including infrastructure projects, regional cooperation, border crossing points, the recognition of diplomas, and missing persons and internally displaced persons.

The real challenge in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, as elsewhere in the region, lies in the implementation of pledges, not in getting leaders to sign off on them.

Some of the infrastructure projects, such as the so-called peace highway, are already under way and funded by the European Union. Loans for this initiative from the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, matched by EU grants, amount to €235m.

The railway infrastructure agreement brokered by Grenell connecting Belgrade and Pristina is competing with an existing EU-funded initiative by suggesting alternative routes on partly non-operational railway tracks through an impassable tunnel that was bombed in 1999.

To be sure, there are some new developments. Israel’s recognition of Kosovo, for one thing – which is good news in itself, but is less related to the dialogue with Serbia and has more to do with Trump’s desire to appeal to his evangelical base.

The downside of this so-called Israel package is that both parties risk drifting further away from the EU, as it requires Serbia and Kosovo to open embassies in Jerusalem. Whether they will actually do so is a different issue altogether, but it creates additional problems for both countries when it comes to aligning their foreign policy with the EU.

Commenting on the package, an EU spokesman said Monday that “any diplomatic steps that could call into question the EU’s common position on Jerusalem are a matter of serious concern and regret.”

Similarly, the commitment to use US screening and information systems could undermine the accession process for Serbia and Kosovo. Of course, it’s an open question to what extent they still believe in joining the bloc. But as long as they are playing the game, these deviations from EU requirements matter.

The other new element is that the US promises to play a greater role in Serbia and Kosovo, including through investment. But how much interest there is from the relevant authorities in investing in the region – and how to compel them to invest – is far from clear.

The US International Development Finance Corporation, for example, has a track record of being stringent in selecting projects to invest in, as its modus operandi requires its loans to be sold on private markets. Its investments are, therefore, based on assessments of commercial viability, political stability, a predictable regulatory framework, and a safe investment environment – none of which necessarily come to mind in relation to border projects between Serbia and Kosovo.

Whether this modest deal will even endure after the US presidential election is also open to question. It seems unlikely to survive if Trump loses in November. And the White House may have little interest in pursuing implementation even if he wins.

From an optimistic perspective, it is a positive development that the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia reiterated their previous commitments, that high-level political attention is forthcoming, and that Israel has recognised Kosovo.

But at what cost? Was it worth it? For this agreement to come about, Grenell helped bring down the reformist Kosovo government of former Prime Minister Albin Kurti, got Donald Trump Jr. to threaten the withdrawal of US troops from Kosovo, and deepened a transatlantic rift that will certainly be exploited by regional politicians. This is amateur hour diplomacy, and the damage it has done dwarfs any gains.

The real challenge in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, as elsewhere in the region, lies in the implementation of pledges, not in getting leaders to sign off on them. Countless regional agreements, better prepared than the one signed on Friday, remain unimplemented.

If the White House is genuinely interested in ensuring that the agreed provisions make a difference on the ground, it needs to work closely with the State Department and the EU on substance, planning, funding, and incentives.

This is not to suggest that the EU has all the answers. In recent years, the EU has been too passive and has lacked a strategy on how to incentivise compliance. And European policy objectives in the region have frequently been achieved only due to massive US pressure to get parties to comply. But Washington’s notion that it will move things in the right direction just by getting involved – without a plan, a focus, a strategy, or coordination with the EU – is deeply misguided.

This article was first published by Politico’s European edition.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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