• A good deal for the diplomatic service and a good deal for Ashton (r) (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Opinion

Kosovo-Serbia deal shows value of EU diplomatic service

23.04.13 @ 09:26

  1. By Steven Blockmans

BRUSSELS - When the Prime Ministers of Serbia and Kosovo on 19 April reached their first agreement on the principles governing the normalisation of relations, they not only settled to overcome long-standing ethnic enmities in the north of the former Serbian province, they also landed Catherine Ashton the kind of diplomatic victory she so badly needed to show the added value of the European External Action Service (EEAS) as a new EU foreign policy actor.

Plagued by criticism about a slow start, weaknesses in the internal organisation, failures to link up with some Commission services, inflated levels of salaries and amounts of holidays, to name just a few, the EEAS recently came under attack from the European Parliament’s budget committee and reports about irregularities in the procurement procedure of a private security firm’s services to protect the EU delegation in Kabul.

All this is bad news for the EEAS, especially in view of the current wholesale review of the organisation and functioning of the service by member states, the parliament and other stakeholders.

Ever since the creation of the EEAS in January 2011, members of the service, as indeed Ashton herself, have been at pains to show the added value of the new EU body.

Success could only be defined in elusive terms: the constructive role played by the EEAS in the wake of the outburst of revolutionary protest in the Arab world, the crisis response coordination by EU delegations in third countries affected by calamity or crisis (e.g. in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster) and the comprehensive approach to tackling complex security/development crises (e.g. Horn of Africa, Sahel).

Another example which was often presented as a success was the fact that Ashton, supported by the EEAS, was able to keep the "P5+1" together in nuclear non-proliferation talks with Iran.

Sadly, these talks, and possibly the international consortium of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council + Germany, fizzled out earlier this month during the latest round of negotiations at Almaty, Kazakhstan, knocking a dent in the image of the EU as a new peacemaker on the world stage.

Clear diplomatic success

The agreement between Belgrade and Pristina presents a clear-cut and resounding diplomatic success for the EEAS, which will enable it to dispel some of the criticism and questions about the value added by the new European diplomatic service.

The deal provides the possibility to close yet another chapter in the violent recent history of the Balkans.

Getting the arch-rivals Ivica Dacic, a former spokesman of the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, and Hashim Thaci, a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, now Prime Ministers of their respective countries, to agree to direct talks and moving them towards an accord in barely seven months’ time is indeed no small feat of diplomatic skill.

It sends a strong signal to the countries in the region, but also the UN, US, Russia, China, and other global players that the EU is serious about stabilising its immediate neighbourhood, and a worthy laureate of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.

Much credit for the positive outcome of the EU-facilitated dialogue goes to Ashton herself.

Her leadership and dedication were critical in bringing about this important agreement. Declaring an end to the formal discussions in the EU-facilitated dialogue when the parties failed to reach an agreement on 2 April, Ashton sent Dadic and Thaci home with the message that the initiative laid with them.

If they wanted her and EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele to advise the EU Council to open the door towards closer relations with the EU, then they had about two weeks to step over their own long shadows and rally their constituencies behind a compromise.

Ashton gambled and won.

Two more rounds of informal talks under her leadership were necessary to hammer out a deal, sanctioned by the General Affairs Council of 22 April. The agreement will partly define Ashton’s legacy as the first high representative for foreign affairs and security policy/vice-president of the commission.

The efforts of many

To be sure, this was no solo effort.

The first meeting of the dialogue foreseen in UN General Assembly Resolution 298 was in fact held on 8-9 March 2011, with the facilitation of a small team led by Robert Cooper, then counsellor of Ashton. Over the course of 12 months, Cooper chaired nine meetings at the level of heads of delegation. Even more gatherings took place in various technical working groups.

In this first phase of the EU-facilitated dialogue, both sides struck agreements in a number of areas: civil registry, freedom of movement, and acceptance of university and school diplomas; customs stamps and cadastral records; and integrated border management.

The Agreement on Regional Representation and Co-operation of 24 February 2012, allowed Kosovo - under the new denomination "Kosovo*" to participate and sign new agreements on its own account and to speak for itself at all regional meetings.

The EU-facilitated dialogue was suspended for six months to take account of the May 2012 general and presidential elections in Serbia. The electoral victory of the nationalist SNS party led Ashton to ratchet up the pressure to strike a deal.

The thinking was that any agreement concluded by the two countries’ nationalists would have the most chance of sustaining the pressures of domestic politics and time.

Hence the decision to invite the political leaders themselves and not just their envoys, to participate in the second phase of the EU-facilitated dialogue.

The main incentive Ashton used to wheedle Kosovo towards an agreement was the view to opening negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement.

Serbia was given the prospect of starting membership talks with the EU. Both the commission and the member states, most vocally Germany, backed Ashton up by warning the parties that they would not hesitate to push the April date for a Council decision further to the horizon if either would not go the full monty in the negotiations.

It is therefore not only the outcome which makes the EU-facilitated dialogue stand out as a success, but also the characteristics of the diplomatic process itself: it was high-level, high on symbolism (e.g. the Ashton-Clinton trip to the Balkans at the outset of the dialogue in October 2012), high-paced (the EEAS ran a tightly organised schedule with high-level negotiation rounds every month), and high on drama (cf. Ashton’s sadness that Dadic and Thaci failed to conclude an agreement as a present for her birthday in March).

The facilitated dialogue also shows that, in spite of its image of a latter day Eldorado having been tainted because of the economic and financial crisis, the EU still has enough power of attraction to convince third states to peacefully settle their disputes in return for a prospect of closer relations with the Union.

The writer is head of the EU foreign policy programme at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a think tank in Brussels