Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

The EU and Kosovo a decade on

The EEAS must capitalize on the sizeable financial and human resources the EU has committed to the region.

Ian Bancroft
14 December 2020, 2.01pm
EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini at an EEAS press conference.
Ye Pingfan/PA. All rights reserved.

As the European External Action Service (EEAS) celebrates a decade of existence, there is understandable fanfare about the evolution of its structures and capabilities. For those eager to see the EU strengthen its presence on the global stage, it is an unquestionable success; a service through which the EU’s common approach to foreign, security, and defence policy can be pursued, with delegations across the globe and to various multilateral bodies.

Yet it is closer to home where this fledgling actor continues to face its most profound challenges. The Western Balkans has long been a key test for the proclaimed effectivity of EU foreign and security policy, especially given the painful and costly mistakes of the nineties. Considerable resources have been invested, including political capital, to demonstrate the EU’s transformative potential in a region where membership of the Union was once deemed almost inevitable.

The Western Balkans has long been a key test for the proclaimed effectivity of EU foreign and security policy, especially given the painful and costly mistakes of the nineties.

Indeed, the issue of Kosovo-Serbia relations provided the EEAS with one of its early triumphs; Baroness Ashton having spearheaded negotiations that led to the landmark 2013 Brussels Agreement between Belgrade and Pristina. It was a breakthrough moment after the 2011 barricades in north Kosovo that brought Kosovo Serbs face-to-face with Nato’s Kosovo Force (KFor); a breakthrough that set Serbia and Kosovo on a tangible path towards the normalisation of relations after the latter’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008.

Scepticism about the dialogue process, however, has continued to mount. The Association/Community of Serb-majority Municipalities, seen as vital for the complete integration of Kosovo’s Serbs, has yet to be established. Many other agreements remain unimplemented. A comprehensive settlement seems further away than many would have hoped or expected by this juncture, with the Trump administration’s recent intervention only serving to reinforce the sense of drift on the part of Brussels.

Progress in security

This is not to ignore the sizable progress thus far. Former Republic of Serbia police officers now sport insignia of the Republic of Kosovo. Kosovo Serb judges and prosecutors have been integrated into the Kosovo framework, ending a legal vacuum for many Kosovo Serbs. The Civil Protection Corps – better known as the ‘Bridgewatchers’, who served as a mobilisation, surveillance, and intimidation force in north Kosovo – has been disbanded, with many of its former members now employed by Kosovo ministries or institutions. Most Serbs in Kosovo now possess a Republic of Kosovo ID card, and make mobile phone calls through a Serb operator registered in the Kosovo system. These are not insignificant achievements; one’s which have had a profound impact on, in particular, the day-to-day security context in Kosovo.

It will come as no surprise that the EEAS (ably assisted by the Commission) has proven to be particularly adept at handling a highly technical portfolio of issues pertaining to the dialogue. From customs to integrated border management, telecommunications to electricity, property claims to financial settlements, it has proffered proposals that have ensured many technical dimensions of dialogue moved forward even when political aspects were stalled. It has provided a level of diligence and expertise that is testament to the professionalism of the individuals on which it can draw. Such diplomacy requires painstaking preparation and perseverance, and the EEAS cannot be faulted in this regard.

No final agreement

Where the EEAS has fallen short, though, is in its attempts to catalyse a final agreement between the two parties. Its apparent support – under the stewardship of Federica Mogherini – of a deal premised upon an exchange of territories between Serbia and Kosovo (part of the former’s south for part of the latter’s north) has damaged the EU’s claim to be a normative actor, guided by common principles and values. What is more, it was an idea whose very consideration (or at least the lack of a firm denial) jeopardized stability elsewhere in the Western Balkans; in particular, Bosnia and Herzegovina, itself another priority for EU policy in the region, yet one that remains gridlocked twenty-five years on from the end of the war.

In addition, the EEAS itself has been hamstrung by a lack of alignment between the decisions of member states and the EU’s overriding foreign policy objectives. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the failure to award Kosovo visa liberalisation, despite the European Commission concluding that it had fulfilled all the requirements; conditions which far surpassed those demanded from other countries in the region. The joke in Pristina is that they are now being beaten with the carrot not the stick (a crude variation speaks of the carrot being stuck where the sun doesn’t shine). For all the talk of EU conditionality, it is individual member states who have to give the green light. The sense of betrayal in Kosovo is palpable, with accusations of double standards that are creating a ‘ghetto’. There are whispers of perceived ‘Albanophobia’ and even Islamophobia. A failure to deliver on such promises has a profound impact on the EU’s leverage.

Rhetorical strategy

It will therefore come as little surprise that the newly-appointed EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues, the experienced Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajčák, spends a considerable amount of time and energy engaging individual EU member states to secure their support for the dialogue process and enlargement more broadly. Whilst there is rhetorical strategic orientation – that Serbia and Kosovo will both ultimately become EU members once they have resolved all outstanding issues – the perception is one of insufficient member state commitment to realising this goal.

The five EU non-recognisers are not in themselves an obstacle at this juncture (a modus operandi has long been established), but the dilution of the EU perspective clearly matters. The recent Bulgarian vetoing of North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations – after that country’s painful sacrifices to secure a compromise over the name issue with Greece – has further damaged the credibility of enlargement. Indeed, many today view the emerging ‘mini-Schengen’ zone as substituting for, rather than complementing, the prospect of EU membership.

Failure to normalise relations between Belgrade and Pristina will have profound consequences for the rest of the Western Balkans and ultimately Europe.

Failure to normalise relations between Belgrade and Pristina will have profound consequences for the rest of the Western Balkans and ultimately Europe. Whilst it has become something of a cliche to assert that if Europe can’t resolve problems in its own backyard then how can it expect to do so in the rest of the world, there is a sincere, nagging doubt deriving from an unresolved sore at the heart of Europe. The EEAS must establish coherence not only between its own delegations – for the priorities in Belgrade are not always aligned with those in Pristina and vice-versa – but also between member states and the Union’s foreign policy goals. It must also gain further recognition for the sizeable financial and human resources the EU has committed to the region. Many of the instruments exist, but the EEAS must ensure they are played more harmoniously.

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