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24th Jul 2021

Early warnings to Serbia about Kosovo may come true

  • Kosovo - Serbia's position on Kosovo looks likely to harm its EU membership prospects (Photo: CharlesFred)

If Serbia does not let go of Kosovo, it will ultimately lose on two fronts - both the contested strip of land as well as the prospect of EU membership. This prediction, made by American diplomat Richard Holbrooke in Brussels more than three years ago, still rings true today.

As do the words of a German ex-ambassador to Belgrade, the late Andreas Zobel, who once warned that Serbia will not enter the EU before 2025 if it does not change its policies towards Kosovo.

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Both diplomats' predictions may yet be fulfilled as the views from European capitals show.

"Serbia hasn't gained anything on Kosovo in the EU in recent years. It has only lost a lot of the support for speeding up its own European integration. Patience and understanding for Serbian politics towards Kosovo is evaporating," a diplomat from the European side of the Contact Group, which brings together the US, Germany, France, Italy, the UK and Russia, told WAZ.EUobserver.

"A few years ago, most top European politicians, French President Nicolas Sarkozy for example, always mentioned Serbia in particular when they spoke about the Western Balkans. Now, even foreign ministers of the most important EU countries don't go to Belgrade unless they also visit at least three or four other capitals. German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle will visit Belgrade shortly but only as one stop in a two-day tour of the region," added our interlocutor.

A similar shift of position is visible in most key European capitals.

London has historically been a staunch supporter of EU enlargement. For a long time, the Foreign Office in London believed that the dates of EU accession for Croatia and Serbia need not be too far apart. Serbian politics towards Kosovo have led to a British change of mind in recent years, however.

Before Kosovo's declaration of independence, London was among the countries who wanted to considerably speed up Serbian EU integration. Now, the UK is among those who clearly state that Serbia's EU entry prospects depend on its approach to Kosovo.

Although no one in Berlin will admit it publicly, Serbia has also proven to be a valuable ally for German enlargement sceptics in recent years. For Germany, it would be much more difficult to advocate a restrictive line on EU enlargement had Serbia arrested former military commander Ratko Mladic, wanted for war crimes in Bosnia, and had the country been more constructive on Kosovo.

Germany initially had more doubts about Kosovo independence than any other Western member of the Contact Group. But once German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, the EU's representative in the US-Russian-European "troika" in autumn 2007, asserted that independence was the least harmful solution, the status question was settled for Berlin. Germany is no longer prepared to make concessions to Serbia on EU membership because of Kosovo.

France, by contrast, was once a very active player in searching for a solution welcomed by both sides. For Paris, this means an independent Kosovo and Serbia within the EU. France was a very strong supporter of Serbian EU integration and insisted on opening the procedure for granting Belgrade official candidate status.

Also, until last February, Paris held that Serbian EU integration and the Kosovo issue should be separated. This changed, however, when the French leadership acknowledged that Serbia showed no signs of revising its stance on Kosovo. So, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner became the first top EU official to publicly announce in Belgrade that Serbia cannot enter the EU without good, or at least acceptable, relations with Kosovo.

Rome and Athens have played, more or less, a similar game from opposite sides. Italy can be said to be Serbia's best friend among the EU countries that have recognised Kosovo's independence. Greece is Kosovo's best friend among the five EU states that refuse to do so.

Unfortunately for Belgrade and Pristina, after the split-up of the largest party in the ruling coalition, Italy is on the brink of a parliamentary crisis and new elections. The Greek government, on the other hand, is grappling with too many problems of its own to be listened to when advising on other countries' difficulties. Thus, Belgrade can expect no substantial help from either Italy or Greece in the coming months.

In Spain, Slovakia and Cyprus, autonomy or independence are delicate issues domestically. They all have reasons of their own for not recognising Kosovo. In the case of Romania, non-recognition is the personal position of the President Traian Basescu. As long as he remains in office, it is hard to see Bucharest recognising Pristina.

However, these countries' positions only appear to serve Serbian interests. In fact, they are a further stumbling block as they block Serbia's - and Kosovo's - way west for a long time yet.

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