26th Feb 2024


Is EU running out of steam on Kosovo/Serbia?

  • The handshake between Aleksandar Vučić, president of Serbia, on the left, and Josep Borrell, EU foreign affairs chief, in Ohrid, North Macedonia last month (Photo: EU Commission)
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Following a tense meeting last month in the city of Ohrid, in North Macedonia, the EU was able to narrowly squeeze out what it called the "implementation annex" to the broader agreement for normalisation of relations between the two adversaries of Kosovo and Serbia.

Although relatively light in content, the annex could represent the first steps to Serbia and Kosovo finally working more constructively together — if it is actually implemented.

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  • And Kosovo PM Albin Kurti, at the same event. With the current approach, Brussels has wasted countless hours and funds with little to show for it (Photo: EU Commission)

So far, however, the two sides have shown little appetite for doing so. Almost immediately following the conclusion of the meeting with EU representative Josep Borrell, both sides began backtracking upon a number of promises made.

If the EU cannot bring the two together following its current approach, it must seriously consider modifying its relationship with the Balkan nations, even if this entails reconsidering the current membership prospects of Belgrade and Pristina.

Already, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić has chosen to turn his back on the proposed agreement, declaring to local media after the meeting that he would not sign anything, stating that such a move would be a de-facto recognition of Kosovo. Furthermore, although he has promised to implement the entire agreement, so far he has chosen instead to focus his energy discussing the articles which most benefit Serbia, as well as demanding that Kosovo finally establish the long proposed Association of Serb Municipalities.

This is certainly not the first time that Vučić has chosen such an approach, but it must be the last. His consistent backtracking on previous deals and unwillingness to find a middle ground for a final settlement, whilst enjoying fruitful economic benefits from the EU, must come to an end.

The Serbian president is certainly not alone in this endeavour. Although Kosovo prime minister, Albin Kurti, has shown more willingness to both sign and stand by the agreement, his unwillingness to seek a compromise on the issue of a Serb-based political association in his country will continue to hold back any further negotiations.

Such a move is reckless, especially when Kosovo has a real chance to highlight its region-leading reforms and its enthusiastic pro-EU approach. Pristina should be inclined to show its openness to a lasting solution, with the promise that Brussels would be open to reforming its route to membership.

Full reset

Since 2011 when the initial Brussels Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo was first signed, the progress has been stagnant, if not non-existent. Every attempt at reconciliation by the EU through regular negotiating channels has left development funds wasted, hours spent thrashing out weak-boned deals with poor results, and good faith between the three parties nearly depleted.

The EU must finally be willing to bear its teeth. As the rest of the Western Balkans look set to race ahead in their membership negotiations in the coming years, there is no reason why Serbia and Kosovo cannot keep up. However, if the current cycle looks set to continue, as seems likely, with the two parties failing to fully implement the new deal, a full reset must be on the table.

Firstly, a full political altercation must be on the cards. Brussels has already stated time and time again that membership of the EU is not possible for the two without some form of normalised relations. The union could show exactly how seriously it is willing to take this threat by looking into temporarily pausing all current or potential membership negotiations with both countries until further development is established.

There is no doubt that Serbia and Kosovo are still many years away from EU membership, with or without the added acquis of normalised relations. Brussels could therefore look to use this moment to show both nations that a great deal of work still remains ahead, and that this intangible part of the negotiations will impede upon all other aspects of the process until the two begin to make real progress.

Both countries still appear to be on a pro-EU trajectory, if there is the political will for it. But Brussels must be willing to show that membership is not a right granted to all. Rather, it is earned through deep, often difficult, but well-meaning reforms.

Furthermore, Brussels should seriously restructure its financial approach.

Throwing money at the Western Balkans in the hope of incentivising discussions and spurring on reform, with little to show for it other than the occasional regional forum, will no longer suffice. Changes must be implemented that align financial incentives with meaningful development.

The EU should therefore look to create more enhanced mechanisms that bond together structural reform, as well as moves towards the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, to regional development funds. Such a shift in approach would send a strong message to not only the Balkans, but any nation looking to accede to the Union that the days of endless cash streams being delivered to national capitals, with little in return, are over.

Russia, China, and Turkey

The concern with this would be that such a significant step back would allow for other actors, namely Russia, China, or Turkey to further enhance their economic links to the region. This is a risk the EU must be willing to take. Both Serbia and Kosovo, as well as other Western Balkan candidate countries, must understand that being granted serious money must bring real change.

With the current approach, Brussels has wasted countless hours and funds with little to show for it. There is still room for agreement to be found, one that would finally bring Serbia and Kosovo into the European family. Their greatest enemy to normalisation is themselves; it's time the EU held up the mirror to show them just that.

Author bio

Cameron MacBride is a Scottish researcher at the Post-Conflict Research Centre in Sarajevo.


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

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