Recent chatter among Balkans experts, diplomats, and politicians indicates a broad consensus that the conditions are right for a comprehensive agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. This perception stems from a number of factors, ranging from those directly related to the EU-facilitated dialogue process to geopolitical shifts caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine. But perception and reality are often at odds – especially in relations between Kosovo and Serbia.
The European Union has long been at the forefront of efforts to reach a comprehensive deal between the parties. Yet these efforts have frequently hit obstacles both within the EU and with other partners, such as the United States. Enlargement fatigue in the EU, the purposeful non-implementation of agreements by Serbia, and ad-hoc actions – such as the introduction of tariffs on Serbian imports by Kosovo – have all undermined the process. As a result, neither party is currently negotiating in good faith.
To overcome these difficulties, and take advantage of the opportunities, the EU and member states need to become actors, not just facilitators, in the dialogue process.
The good news
The Biden administration has ensured the primacy of the EU-facilitated process, with the full support of the US foreign policy apparatus. This stands in contrast to the Trump administration, during which parallel US-led talks undermined European efforts. US president Joe Biden’s appointment of two seasoned diplomats with extensive Balkans experience – Chris Hill in Belgrade and Jeff Hovenier in Pristina – further solidified the US focus on reaching a final agreement.
Moreover, recent elections in both Kosovo and Serbia installed stable governments with strong electoral mandates. Stable governments with parliamentary majorities are vital ingredients for the normalisation of relations between Western Balkans states. Previously, a lack of political support – especially in Kosovo – has hampered efforts to fully normalise relations between the two countries, alongside internal political battles in fragile minority or coalition governments.
Finally, Russia’s war in Ukraine serves as a painful reminder that frozen conflicts on the European continent could thaw at any time. This has intensified the US and the EU efforts to move the dialogue process forward. The number of European special envoys has grown considerably: alongside the EU special representative, several EU member states and the United Kingdom have appointed their own – with Germany, France, Italy, and Slovenia naming envoys at different levels to support and accelerate the process.
The bad news
But, despite the enabling international and local contexts, the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia has stalled in the last two years. The role of the international community has shifted from trying to facilitate a final agreement between Pristina and Belgrade to putting out daily fires related to deals struck ten years ago. In the past, the two sides held weekly and monthly meetings that signalled progress towards the normalisation of their relations. Now, meetings are few and far between – and are often damaging for the relations between the two countries. Indeed, every meeting between Kosovo’s prime minister Albin Kurti and Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic seems to end up as a step back in the dialogue process.
The citizens of Kosovo and Serbia spent the summer facing the prospect of violence and conflict. The Kosovan government’s plans to fine ethnic Serb residents who are unwilling to surrender their Belgrade-issued car number plates have met with resistance in the north of the country. After a decade of relative calm, barricades have reappeared near the border with Serbia; and all Serb members of Kosovo institutions in the north – including police officers, judges, prosecutors, mayors, and assembly representatives – have stepped down in a sign of revolt. European envoys and diplomats have now taken note of these tensions, particularly following the struggle to reach an agreement to defuse the situation in emergency talks between Vucic, Kurti, and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
So, dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia no longer concerns their European future, nor even peace in the Western Balkans. It has instead fragmented into a series of spats over identity cards, number plates, and public sector employees. That is, rather than the process bringing Kosovo and Serbia closer to the EU, Kosovo and Serbia have Balkanised the dialogue. But how has it come to this?
For some time, neither Kosovo’s nor Serbia’s government has seen the dialogue process as working for their benefit and that of the Western Balkans’ European future. Instead, they see it as a nuisance in which they have to engage because of pressure from the EU. They also see it as a zero-sum game. On one hand, for most political elites in Kosovo, the dialogue is unnecessary since the country’s independence is a done deal. The ‘Ahtisaari package’, as the basis for Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, set out all the aspects of the country’s statehood – including the rights of minorities and the status of the Serbian Orthodox Church. They see any further negotiation and concessions as a loss for Kosovo and gain for Serbia. The attitude in Belgrade, on the other hand, is that Kosovo’s independence is reversible: the longer the dialogue process lasts, the greater the potential for Belgrade to benefit. So, instead of engaging in finding solutions, both countries’ leaderships constantly seek out ways to stall the process and blame it on the other party.
Moreover, the EU has lost much of its leverage over both Kosovo and Serbia – and indeed the Western Balkans more broadly. Enlargement fatigue has set in following years of stalled accession talks, and the EU’s visa liberalisation process with Kosovo has deteriorated. The EU no longer has any carrots to tempt the parties’ leaderships to engage in better faith and view the process as a positive-sum game.
The way forward
Russia’s war in Ukraine should have been a wake-up call for the EU and the international community. But it did not translate into urgency of action and messages towards the Western Balkans. The frozen conflict between Kosovo and Serbia is a threat to the European continent; it should therefore be treated as a matter of strategic importance. The EU’s current role as a neutral facilitator is not sufficient to address a challenge of this magnitude. Instead, clear strategic action will be necessary to enable a swift and decisive conclusion to the dialogue process.
Firstly, the EU needs to address its leverage deficit. The recent revival of the EU’s ‘Berlin Process’ (an initiative to promote cooperation among Western Balkans states) could be a useful model to convince the Serbian and Kosovan leaderships of the mutual benefits of engaging with the bloc. The process has enabled the conclusion of key agreements, such as free movement with identity cards and the recognition of educational and professional qualifications throughout the Western Balkans. This provides countries in the region with tangible progress towards alignment with the EU – and ultimately their accession. Leverage such as this will be essential for the EU and member states to move beyond facilitation.
In addition, France and Germany’s recent proposal (with US support) of a new roadmap for the dialogue process could provide a much-needed paradigm shift to propel Kosovo and Serbia towards a comprehensive solution. The details of the proposal remain unclear. But the very idea of an ambitious roadmap implies the EU and member states are realising that lasting peace in the Balkans and on the European continent requires decisive action – and that a sustainable settlement between Kosovo and Serbia cannot be entrusted to Balkans leaders alone.
The EU and its member states should build on this initiative and propose an ambitious agenda for the future of the dialogue process, which should start with a final agreement on the normalisation of relations. This agreement should cover all outstanding issues and speed up the EU accession path for both countries, resulting in nothing less than the two countries’ full recognition of each other. The EU started as a peace process and should continue as such – this is the only way to ensure today’s conflict is not passed on to future generations.
Bernard Nikaj is the secretary for international relations of the Democratic Party of Kosovo. Previously, he was Kosovo’s ambassador in Brussels and minister of trade and industry. He teaches international politics at RIT in Kosovo.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.