by Dimitar Bechev, 14 Jul 2020

After Trump’s failure to tackle the Serbia-Kosovo issue, the EU has taken back the lead. But it cannot do it alone.

It would not be a stretch to say that Europe has now given up on US President Donald Trump. Not that long ago, leaders across the pond held some hope that they could work with the US on issues of common interest. No more.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refusal to attend a G7 summit at Camp David, originally scheduled for June 10-12, speaks volumes of the poor state of transatlantic relations.

The get-together was postponed until September, ostensibly because of the coronavirus pandemic. But with a presidential election due in short order, it is highly unlikely that Merkel or French President Emmanuel Macron would be going there with high expectations.

Though they are understandably keeping quiet, in private they may well be rooting for a Trump defeat in November.

Meanwhile, the gap between Europeans and the current administration in Washington is becoming conspicuous in an unlikeliest of places: Kosovo.

For decades, the US and the EU have stood side by side in former Yugoslavia, pushing the same set of policies predicated on conflict resolution and integration into the West. Then, starting with the Bush administration, the US essentially passed the lead to Europe.

The promise of EU membership with all the attendant benefits – from freedom of movement to billions in funding – motivated Serbia and Kosovo to sit at the negotiating table and even produce an interim deal in 2013.

Though falling short of securing Belgrade’s recognition of what it still considers its own province, the 2013 Brussels Agreement mapped the way forward to normalising ties. The US lent political support to the EU-mediated talks, aiming to close the last chapter in Yugoslavia’s bloody unravelling.

This close US-EU cooperation, however, seemingly ended with the advent of Trump. His administration bypassed the EU on Kosovo, taking matters into its own hands. With the EU normalisation talks effectively stalled in late 2018, then-US Ambassador to Germany – and current Special Envoy – Richard Grenell and then-National Security Advisor John Bolton seized the opportunity to put the US in the driving seat.

In January this year, Grenell brokered a deal to resume flights between Belgrade and Prishtina. Then, on June 6, the Kosovo government agreed to scrap all restrictions on imports of Serbian goods, a step Grenell was pushing for.

The decision was taken by a new cabinet headed by Avdullah Hoti, replacing Prime Minister Albin Kurti whose hardline stance towards Belgrade had put him at odds with US diplomacy.

All the stars appeared to be aligned for a summit between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his Kosovan counterpart, Hashim Thaci, at the White House on June 27.

Though Grenell sought to temper expectations, stressing that the meeting would be all about economic issues, it was clear that he was hopeful, in due course, of a major breakthrough which would score points for Trump, burnishing his lacklustre foreign policy reputation. The EU was welcome as a support act.

But the planned summit proved a flop. Thaci decided to pull out after a prosecutor at the special court on Kosovo at The Hague issued a preliminary indictment accusing him of war crimes during the 1998-1999 conflict. The unexpected twist has put Kosovo off the White House’s agenda, at least for the time being. A US-hosted meeting may not be out of the question, but it does not seem to be a priority for an administration known for its short attention span.

The ball is now in the EU’s court. President Vucic and Prime Minister Hoti are to hold talks on July 16 in Brussels chaired by Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

On July 10, prior to the new round of negotiations, the first since November 2018, the trio touched base with Macron and Merkel over a video link. Hoti and Vucic both visited Paris before that too. However, this pre-round did not score much progress.

Having already appointed Miroslav Lajcak as a special envoy, The EU is shifting gears and preparing to re-engage in Kosovo.

Europe’s comeback is welcome, but process cannot compensate for substance. At the end of the day, the EU – or at least 22 of its members who recognise Kosovo’s statehood – expects that Serbia will accept independence in return for vaguely defined gains.

Accession to the Union is the ultimate prize, but it is not forthcoming for Belgrade, even under the best of circumstances. The slow pace of negotiations, the new methodology allowing for the reopening of chapters and, not least, the enlargement-scepticism in Western Europe, do not augur well for a swift conclusion.

The EU’s stock in Prishtina is in decline as well because of the reluctance to grant Kosovars visa-free travel to the Schengen area, in contrast to the rest of the Western Balkans and a number of post-Soviet states.

Merkel, Macron and Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, should put incentives on the table to make Vucic and Hoti, a proxy for Thaci, trade some concessions and truly bring normalisation talks back to life.

To get things moving in the decade-long Balkan dispute, the EU will still need the US. Americans carry substantial diplomatic leverage, especially in Kosovo, where frustration with Brussels led Thaci to turn to Washington.

It will be ill-advised to stonewall Grenell, much less the US State Department where transatlanticism and multilateralism are still rated highly.

The Americans and the Europeans need to be on the same page in order to ensure that Russia, a partner for Serbia, does not undercut conflict resolution efforts. Given the acrimony between the current administration and allies in Europe, cooperation cannot be taken for granted.