By Andreas Wittkowsky 02-07-2020

To almost everybody’s surprise, the EU just regained the pole position in the dialogue between Prishtina and Belgrade. But is the bloc sufficiently prepared for the race, asks Andreas Wittkowsky.

With its announcement that it intends to file a war crimes indictment against Kosovo’s president Hashim Thaci, the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office for Kosovo, established in The Hague, caused a major political earthquake.

Its first casualty was a meeting between Kosovo and Serbia scheduled for 27 June in the White House. Both countries were expected to seal a deal that the US Special Envoy, Richard Grenell, had been working on.

His initiative filled the gap that had been left behind by the EU-led dialogue, which had lain dormant since 2018. But now, shortly before crossing the finishing line, Grenell‘s process broke down. Thaci cancelled his trip after the prosecution went public, and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti followed suit.

In the dispute about who should lead the dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina, the EU surprisingly finds itself in the pole position.

The content of the imminent Washington deal has not been published so far. Lately announced by Grenell as an economic package, it has been subject to plenty of speculation. In particular, rumours persisted that it would encompass a territorial exchange in order to increase Serbia’s willingness to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty.

But changing borders in the Balkans, most observers feared, would create a precedent with the potential to undermine stability in other parts of the region.

Grenell could have scored a first success at the margins of the Munich Security Conference in February. In the presence of the two presidents, Hashim Thaci and Alksander Vucic, two cooperation agreements on railway and motorway links between the two countries were signed.

There was only one flaw, though: Kosovo’s government under prime minister Albin Kurti, which bears responsibility for the country’s infrastructure development, was intentionally left out.

Kurti, like his predecessor Ramush Haradinaj, threatened the intended harmony of the event. Countering Serbia’s international de-recognition campaign to the detriment of Kosovo, Kurti followed a self-assertive policy, insisting on reciprocity in the bilateral relations and rejecting any change of borders.

Subsequently the US put pressure on Kosovo by threatening to cut its substantial support.

Kurti’s coalition partner, the Democratic League (LDK), got cold feet and toppled the government to which it belonged with a parliamentary vote of non-confidence. Following a lengthy constitutional squabble, LDK’s Avdullah Hoti was elected new prime minister on 3 June, with the smallest possible majority of votes.

As his government depends on Haradinaj’s votes, Hoti from the very beginning insisted that the borders of Kosovo are not negotiable.

Meanwhile, the EU tried to regain the initiative which it had lost, partly due to its own actions. Since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, Brussels insisted that the Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue under its auspices was the key to sustainable peace in the region.

The EU’s goal was a comprehensive, legally binding bilateral agreement which would open a membership perspective for both countries.

But over the years the then High Representative, Federica Mogherini, also warmed to the idea of a territorial exchange. This split the Union as some member states, first of all Germany, opposed that policy shift.

In April 2020, the EU appointed the Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajcak Special Representative for the Dialogue. After visiting the region, he hoped to hold a first revival round of talks in July in Brussels.

To prepare the ground and avoid misperceptions on the EU’s intentions with regard to the White House meeting, Kosovo‘s prime minister and Serbia’s president were invited to meet Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Council president Charles Michel and enlargement commissioner Oliver Varhelyi.

With the Washington event now cancelled, the EU is in the limelight much earlier as expected. But in Serbia the European approach is encountering increasing difficulties. On the one hand, Vucic gained an absolute majority in the 21 June parliamentary elections and therefore substantial room for manoeuvre.

On the other hand, it is increasingly questionable whether he will use that space, as he frequently insisted that Serbia would not give up on Kosovo for the sake of EU membership.

Time and again Vucic has closed ranks with Russia, which has backed Serbia’s position on Kosovo in the UN Security Council. Immediately after the Serbian elections, Vucic paid a visit to Moscow.

Talking to the press, he remained secretive about the content of his meeting with Vladimir Putin, but stated “we really had a good conversation and some things you can’t talk about publicly“. Whatever was said – it is highly unlikely that Russia’s president encouraged his guest to quickly close the inglorious Kosovo chapter in Serbia’s history.

More and more observers have the impression that Serbia is making herself increasingly comfortable in a see-saw policy between East and West. The Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU guarantees free trade with the bloc and fosters direct investment.

But internally, Serbia is becoming more illiberal, mainly by an unprecedented media concentration in government-friendly hands and by obstacles to opposition activities. The EU, however, cannot afford to compromise on the fulfillment of the accession criteria for geopolitical reasons.

So there is an elephant in the room: If the strongest EU carrot, namely EU membership in a foreseeable time, is becoming unrealistic, then which powerful instruments are left in the foreign policy toolbox?

The answer to that question is vital if the EU is to regain its credibility as a stabilising factor in the region. Otherwise the unexpected pole position will be lost as quickly as it was gained.

Apparently, that is another challenge for the German EU presidency.

Andreas Wittkowsky is the head of Project Peace and Security at the Center for International Peace Operations (ZIF).