Sunday

7th Jun 2020

Opinion

Why Miroslav Lajčák is the wrong choice for EU envoy

  • Should Miroslav Lajčák indeed be appointed, the two senior EU diplomats dealing with Kosovo would both come from the small minority of member states that do not recognise Kosovo (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The European Union could commit a major strategic blunder in its immediate neighbourhood with the appointment, expected in March, of Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajčák to lead the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo on a final normalisation agreement.

His precise capacity – whether as a special envoy in charge of the negotiations only or for the whole Western Balkans, or as a kind of all-Western Balkans EU special representative – remains unclear.

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What is clear is that this is a terrible choice.

The staffing and organisational decision is part of a reset of talks that collapsed under the EU's previous foreign policy chief, Frederica Mogherini; her team had championed a dangerous land-swap that would have threatened regional and European stability.

Those ill-designed negotiations were less aspirational than grounded in an anti-policy of "any deal is a good deal" 'transactionalism', defying core European values and the one lesson learned from the Balkan wars – that any talks focused on maps, ethno-territorial demarcations, and leadership interests are everything but a solution.

Mogherini's successor, Josep Borrell, seems to have understood that in order to resume the negotiations under credible EU leadership, he needs to delegate the lead negotiator role to an envoy – as this tough and demanding task is a full-time job.

On the surface, Lajčák may seem to have the requisite qualifications for that job.

He speaks Serbian and served twice in the Balkans: first, as EU envoy to supervise Montenegro's referendum on independence from the state union with Serbia, in 2006, and then as the EU's special representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2007-09, simultaneously serving as the international community's high representative.

Moreover, he knows how to navigate the Brussels bureaucracy, having served as managing director for Europe and central Asia in the European External Action Service in 2010-12, just as the EEAS was being built up as an institution.

In addition, he is likely to be available for the job: polls in Slovakia predict that the social democrats with which he's affiliated will be booted from power in elections at the end of this month.

Despite these apparent qualifications, however, Lajčák is the wrong man for a number of reasons.

First, Slovakia is one of just five EU member states that do not recognise Kosovo's independence from Serbia, for entirely domestic reasons.

Spain, whose former foreign minister, Josep Borrell, became EU foreign policy chief in December, is another.

Non-recognition duo

Should Lajčák indeed be appointed, the two senior EU diplomats dealing with Kosovo would both come from the small minority of member states that do not recognise Kosovo – and oversee talks whose declared end point should be Serbia's recognition of Kosovo's independence.

This would send a strong signal that the EU is taking sides. It would also prop up Serbia's increasingly authoritarian president, Aleksandar Vučić, ahead of early elections in April.

Second, Lajčák carries serious political baggage: a history of political failure in the Balkans.

As the EU's special representative (and the international community's high representative) in BiH, he got embroiled in a serious political confrontation with Bosnian Serb strongman Milorad Dodik.

Demonstrating serious miscalculations and limited political skills, the conflict ended in Lajčák's humiliating retreat.

The episode earned him a reputation as being weak on Dodik and having a pro-Serb bias. Lajčák's tenure deepened the EU's de facto policy of letting illiberal actors in BiH determine the EU's own agenda.

Third, Lajčák has a track record of putting personal and professional ambitions above the mission.

He abruptly abandoned his post in Sarajevo after a year and a half in the job – explaining that he could not decline an offer made by Robert Fico, then Slovakia's prime minister, to head his country's diplomacy – only to undercut his successor in Sarajevo in subsequent years.

According to multiple sources, Lajčák himself requested a much broader portfolio than just the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations, despite knowing very well that this in itself is a full-time job.

This self-seeking approach to the job is exactly what drove Mogherini and her team.

Finally, the illiberalism of the governments which Lajčák served in Bratislava should be anything but a selling point. He remained in post as prime minister Fico had to resign in the fallout from the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak.

In a region struggling with attacks on the media by powerful officials, not least in Serbia, Lajčák's appointment would send exactly the wrong message, providing another illustration of what Balkan citizens see as a pattern of EU officials 'failing up.'

His being on the job market at all is a result of a presumed electoral manifestation of the civic backlash against corruption under the government he served – twice.

Western Balkan citizens deserve better than discredited leftovers, no matter how much elites have become accustomed to this pattern.

Appointing Lajčák to lead the Kosovo-Serbia talks – in any capacity – would signal the EU's deepening lack of seriousness to leaders and citizens in Serbia, Kosovo and the wider region and alienate Pristina, thus dooming the reset of negotiations to failure. It would also seriously hamper the Union's recently announced revitalisation of its enlargement policy.

EU member states thus need to prevent this appointment.

Other candidates

Rather than choosing Lajčák to give the appearance of commitment to the issue, the EU should instead first define the parameters of a future envoy's mission and profile, and define the political terms of the reset of negotiations.

Only then should it even consider a list of potential candidates. A number of conditions should apply.

First, a future envoy, unlike Borrell, must come from a member state which recognises Kosovo.

Second, they must be tasked only with the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations. Any portfolio that included the wider Western Balkans, and especially Bosnia and Herzegovina, would not only be an overstretch. It would imply linkage between a Kosovo-Serbia agreement and Bosnia, which is precisely was secessionist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has been promoting.

This is a particularly dangerous signal as Dodik again is openly mooting a secession referendum, which carries with it the spectre of renewed violence.

The EU's weak posture in Bosnia since before Lajčák's tenure (but further reduced by him) has empowered Dodik to behave without restraint.

Third, she or he must be a political heavyweight and experienced negotiator. The selected individual would not necessarily need to have Balkan experience – indeed, given the fact that most European politicians with deep Balkan experience come with baggage, be it an ethnic bias or a history of political failure, not having a Balkan background might even be an asset.

But the future envoy must have demonstrated sound judgment and fortitude, a clear mandate, and be supported by a broad team that includes experts both on the Balkans and on relevant topics that will be part of a future comprehensive agreement (international and constitutional law, minority rights, local self-governance, economic and property issues).

Author bio

Toby Vogel and Bodo Weber are senior associates of the Democratization Policy Council, based in Brussels and Berlin, respectively.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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