Robert Cooper, 26th September, 2018

“An intellectual hatred is the worst”, says W B Yeats, “So let her think opinions are accursed.” That’s what I used to think when I was involved in diplomacy myself, in a small way. It’s easier to have an opinion than to make a decision, or to take responsibility for proposing something new. Opinions cost nothing, but if you are a political leader who is making a proposal, then you are in some way betting your future on it.

The commentariat – and, I guess, I have to confess to being a commentator now (also in a small way) – seems to have taken to the Serbia-Kosovo question in a very polarising fashion: everyone is taking sides. In Pristina last week on a study trip led by ECFR, I found that everyone identifies with one side or the other. Pluralism is the essence of democracy – but so is unity when it comes to big national issues.

We ought not to allow old habits to shape our approach to Balkans issues

Twenty years after the end of the last war in the Balkans, the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo has found its way back into international headlines. The leaders of Serbia’s and Kosovo’s governments began in August discussions to find a compromise on the long-disputed border between their countries.

This is a question that has lots to recommend it if you want to take sides: it’s about war and peace – some say changing borders will bring war, and others say it’s a way of making peace; it’s about our history in the Balkans too, the mistakes we made, the successes we had, the lessons we learned. It’s true also that geopolitical deals don’t solve the big problems of the Balkans. These are, as they always have been, bad politics and bad government. But it’s difficult to govern well if you are not sure where your borders are, and if you have non-relations with your neighbours.

My plea is that we ought not to allow old habits to shape our approach to Balkans issues. We ought not to take sides too quickly and too definitively.

The European solution has been to keep borders as they are, and make them irrelevant. That has worked brilliantly for us. But we should also admit that we did quite a lot of moving borders around before we got there. Then there is the Helsinki Final Act: it is clear on territorial integrity and the inviolability of frontiers; but it also includes an exception for peaceful change in accordance with international law.

Politics ought to be about bringing people together, not dividing them. So, let’s not dig in prematurely. Why not wait and see if someone has a proposal to make, listen to it carefully, examine it seriously: not just what is proposed, but also how it might be done, and what measures might accompany it, where the balance between the parties’ is, how it would affect the region.

Decisions should be primarily taken for those who will be most affected by them. That is, first of all, those directly affected, and their neighbours.

So far, no one has proposed anything concrete. We hear of ideas, but they are rather vague. Before ideas can become a plan, they need to be given a precise shape. Usually, the more you go into detail, the more difficult it becomes – but there’s no avoiding detail; policy is not about principles or generalisations. (“I like principles”, said Napoleon to Talleyrand in Erfurt, “They don’t commit me to anything”.) Detail takes time; if several parties are involved, that means there will be compromises; so, the parties will have to ask if the package is balanced, if both sides gain.

Decisions should be primarily taken for those who will be most affected by them

So, let’s break old habits in the Balkans for once, and not take sides before we know what has been proposed. Give those concerned time to work their ideas into proposals, give them time to explain them, maybe even to adapt them. Let’s hear opinions from all sides, especially those on the ground, and only then make our minds up – but bearing in mind that, in the end, it’s not our opinions that matter.

And then, according to what those concerned want – let’s get back to the serious business of making Kosovo work. There are lots of clever, creative, determined people in Kosovo; they do brilliantly in other people’s countries. Given the right sort of chance, there must be a way they can do brilliantly in their own too.

Robert Cooper is an ECFR council member and a European diplomat who facilitated the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo