22nd Oct 2016

Who won the EU game on Kosovo and Serbia?

EU ministers at the last General Affairs Council of 2013 agreed that Serbia should start accession talks and that Kosovo should be thanked for being constructive and loyal to EU.

Serbia was perhaps the only Western Balkans winner based on the Council conclusions: The others more or less remained at the same stage as they were before, except for Albania, which, based on UK leader David Cameron’s speech, went backwards.

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But on closer inspection, the biggest loser seems to be Kosovo, which had been promised a reward for being constructive in the political dialogue with Serbia, but which got nothing.

It seems that the Kosovo government naively trusted EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who failed to deliver.

Kosovar citizens were led to believe by the government that the Serbia dialogue would not only strengthen Kosovo's sovereignty, but will also accelerate its progress toward visa-free travel and the signature of a Stabilisation ad Association pact with the EU.

To put things in perspective, let's look back at how it all happened.

After declaring independence on 17 February 2008, people in Kosovo thought there was no more reason to conduct negotiations with Serbia on internal matters because everything was laid down clearly in the so called Ahtisaari package, its EU-endorsed blueprint for statehood.

But despite being recognised by major world powers, the Kosovo leadership could not find support for extending its rule in northern Mitrovica, which remained under the de facto control of "parallel structures" created and maintained by Serbia.

The situation in the north remained fragile. The EU's police mission, Eulex, became fully operational one year after the declaration of independence, but with limited capacity, and with a very questionable role in the north.

Serbia was rather clear that it would not budge, if not for the EU’s enlargement policy, whose conditions brought both Serbia and Kosovo to the negotiating table to put an “end” to the anarchy in the region.

To get negotiations going, the EU prepared appetisers, such as deals surrounding education, civil registers and telecommunications. It looked as if the dialogue would be limited to technical matters. But before long, they led the two sides into deep political waters and to the creation of an ethnically based "Association of Serb Municipalities," with special competences not to be found in any other country, except Republica Srpska in Bosnia.

Amid Ashton's promises of EU enlargement rewards, Serbia gradually changed its rhetoric and made concessions. It agreed to remove the parallel structures and its intelligence service from the north and to bring back the registers which it stole during the war. It also promised not to block Kosovo’s participation in international fora, where it could now attend meetings, albeit with an asterisk and footnote attached to its name.

It is not normal for an independent state should discuss internal matters of this type with another country.

But the Kosovo side expected the process to end with Serbia dismantling the structures, the extension of Kosovar constitutional rule in the north and, possibly, a peace agreement with Serbia.

This was never on Serbia’s agenda.

Serbian PM Ivica Dacic made it clear at the beginning that the talks had to be conducted on a "status neutral" basis (the footnote on Kosovo nameplates and documents). He also pushed to legalise the parallel structures via internationally recognised local elections and to ensure that Belgrade would get EU accession talks in the end.

Looking at the outcome, it seems he got exactly what he wanted.

The talks achieved some progress on technical issues.

But the north is still controlled by Serbia rather than Kosovo. The situation on the ground has hardly changed since the EU-Kosovo-Serbia deal in April: Kosovo's central institutions are still unwelcome in the region and the parallel structures have more legitimacy and power than ever before.

The truth came to light during the local elections in November: Dacic and his minister without portfolio, Alexander Vulin, openly campaigned for the Srpska List party, which is funded and controlled by Belgrade and which won the vote in eight out of the nine Serb-dominated municipalities.

I am sure this is not what the Kosovo government wanted.

But did they, and Ashton, not see it coming? Did Ashton overlook it for the sake of scoring a big deal in her EU job? Dacic looked into their eyes and said "We will not recognise Kosovo" and they both accepted this as a sound basis for going forward.

Germany was perhaps the only EU member which insisted that Serbia should not get any EU reward unless there is real improvement. But at the end of last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bundestag: “We demanded visible progress in the implementation of the normalisation agreement this summer … We can now say 'Yes'."

Kosovo itself did not make it easy for Germany to take a tougher line.

Under the EU's tutelage, it did not react to Serbia's foot-dragging on implementation, it hardly said a word on its political interference in the November vote and it did nothing to stop the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities in its present form.

Kosovo's PM, Hashim Thaci, trusted the EU too much and should go back to school before trying to conduct any more international diplomacy.

After the General Affairs Council conclusions, Kosovo's foreign minister, Enver Hoxha, tweeted: ”While welcoming EU Council conclusions, Kosovo is not being rewarded for constructive engagement in dialogue and reforms.”

His pathetic remark reveals the level of the government's naivety.

It entered the process in the blind belief that if it does what the EU asks it will get its just rewards. But instead it lost a golden opportunity to secure a date for visa liberalisation and for the signature of its SAA alongside the opening of EU-Serbia accession negotiations.

Serbia has not recognised Kosovo and EU knows very well that it cannot let Serbia become a member unless this issue is permanently settled.

Why is the Union happy to let this fundamental question for the Western Balkans remain unanswered? It is surely more important than the Macedonia name game.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, EU countries agreed to have a stronger "common" foreign policy. Twenty three out of 28 member states recognise Kosovo. Isn’t that more common than bowing to the internal concerns of the five non-recognisers?

The EU has the power to create positive change abroad oly when it speaks with one voice.

But on Kosovo-Serbia, it remains divided and its incoherence has seen it rush into starting the accession process with Serbia without signing a Kosovo-Serbia peace agreement that would lead toward full reconciliation.

In a recent interview for CNN, Dacic, when asked how he will solve the issue of Kosovo’s recognition, said that “Serbia will not bring its problems into the EU but this does not mean a change of policy when it comes to the question of recognising the sovereignty [of Kosovo].”

It is what some diplomats call creative ambiguity and it amounts to letting the five non-recognising EU states dictate the will of the other 23.

If the EU dialogue has taught Kosovo one thing, it should be this: do not put too much trust in mediators, whoever they are, and pursue your own interests instead.

In the popular TV show, the Game of Thrones, the character Tywin Lannister at one pint asks Arya Stark: "What killed your father?" Arya’s response is quick and sharp: "Loyalty."

The outcomes of the Brussels talks has proved that too much loyalty kills.

The writer is a post-graduate student of European Affairs at Lund University in Sweden and the holder of a Swedish Institute Scholarship. He is of Kosovar Albanian origin

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