Pristina-Belgrade Dialogue: Why the EU Mediation Seems So Ineffective?



By Asllan Zenunaj

Since Kosovo’s proclamation as an independent state on February 17th, 2008, the EU institutions have had significant diplomatic matters to deal with in the Western Balkans. The negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade are “facilitated” by the HR/VP of the EU Commission and its team. Initially serving as mediation for technical issues, the dialogue progressively becomes more political and consequently more complicated. The EU is not a unified entity and indirectly lacks impartiality. Its tendency to collaborate with stabilocracies, the deadlock of the enlargement process as a means for further negotiations, and the threat from Russia’s influence all contribute to the policy of offering incentives to Serbia (“carrot”) while applying pressure to Kosovo (“stick”). These factors help explain why the EU is not making significant progress in creating a common settlement for the main cause of the conflict between Pristina and Belgrade: the recognition of Kosovo’s independence by Serbia.

Divisions inside the EU bring fake impartiality

There is a deep-rooted dispute between Kosovo and Serbia with a complicated history. The EU commitment has a history of some success in the Balkans, but it is still far from achieving uniform success in the region, particularly regarding a solution for the Kosovo-Serbia dispute. The EU-facilitated dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade officially started in 2011, resulting in the signing of around 30 agreements. Notable agreements include the Brussels Agreement and another major implementation agreement in the summer of 2015. However, some agreements were barely implemented, some were obstructed, and others had significant ambiguities but were fully implemented. Indeed, the entire process was treated ambiguously, both in terms of content and the role of the facilitator/mediator in the dialogue process. The parties involved in the dialogue do not recognize each other, which has legal implications for establishing a formal and binding relationship through bilateral treaties. While EU institutions maintain a neutral attitude regarding Kosovo’s status, all other states from the former Yugoslavia territories have been recognized by the EU. Certain member states, such as France and Germany, have made it clear that recognition of Kosovo’s independence is a precondition for membership, but the EU as a whole has failed to provide a clear path toward achieving this goal.

Certainly, the European Union is not a unique entity when it comes to its role as a mediator. Until today, five Member States (Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Greece, and Cyprus) do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Interestingly, the current EU Special Representative for the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue and Western Balkans is from the Republic of Slovakia, a state that does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. It is an intergovernmental actor, and this could be expected but at the same time, it is an element that must be taken into consideration since its function is to be a neutral arbiter. This creates the fatal imbalance between Serbia and Kosovo: the status quo (no settlement) benefits the stronger, intransigent party, Belgrade, and punishes the weaker, Pristina, leaving the Kosovo dispute ‘un-ripe’ for resolution. Whatever their intentions or motivations, the EU 5 position dooms the EU-led Dialogue over Kosovo, turning the West into weak supplicants of the Vucic regime across the board.

In the case of the Kosovo-Serbia dispute the EU’s position remains ambiguous regarding its demands from Serbia. Indeed, much more effort should be put into a direct and more effective request that points out that part of the solution to this dispute must be the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. In doing so, much more effort is needed within the EU itself. Despite all EU 5 capitals (non-recognizers of Kosovo’s independence) supporting the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, formally, they (except for Greece) share the Russian position on ‘international law’ concerning Belgrade’s rights to defend its territorial integrity. Nonetheless, the good intentions of the EU 5 only obscure their negative role. Their fear coming from domestic (real or invented) problems indirectly contribute to the lack of credibility of the EU as an impartial mediator. Distilled to its essence, the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo pivots on the status quo: partial recognition, and widespread isolation of Kosovo – is abhorrent to Pristina, inflicting severe political, economic, and social costs and insecurity on the country, no matter which government is in power in Pristina. An isolated and weak Kosovo is beneficial to Belgrade. 

Indeed, having no settlement at all with Pristina, is the optimal outcome for Belgrade, as long as it is not blamed for the deadlock. Moreover, in conflict management terms, the Kosovo dispute is not ‘ripe’ for resolution because there is no ‘mutually hurting stalemate.’ Serbia simply does not have the same interest in a negotiated outcome as Kosovo, because it is Pristina that bears the pain of the stand-off. It is true that the status quo – no settlement – also imposes a cost on Kosovo’s Serbs. But Belgrade does not care about this cost; if it did, it would not tolerate organised crime in the north of Kosovo, as it does. Because the “normalisation” of relations between Kosovo and Serbia is a requirement for EU membership, Western officials assert that Belgrade also has an interest in a settlement. As explained below, the reforms needed to join the EU are inimical to the regime’s character and its interest. The reversal of this destructive dynamic – Serbia’s wholesale leverage advantage fuelling exalted expectations and extortionate demands that debilitate the West and leave Kosovo and the region in perpetual stagnation – is for a substantial part, in the hands of the European non-recognizers. They control Serbian leverage, not Russia and China with their UN vetoes.

Tendency to collaborate with stabilitocracies and Russia and China threat.

Another essential factor to consider is that many times, for the sake of peace, foreign governments focus on stability rather than democracy and justice. However, several sources assert that the EU’s policies contribute to the entrenchment of autocratic tendencies in the region. The EU’s overly technical approach to enlargement fails to foster deep political and societal transformation. A lack of clarity in rule of law definitions hinders the adequate transposal of EU values. The EU often fails to speak out against and act upon standstill or backlash, implicitly offering tacit support to autocratic tendencies instead. Serbia has refused to impose sanctions against Russia, whereas the EU continues to try to keep Serbia away from Moscow.

The process of dialogue started with no clear strategy, and no transparency, and was quite far from the public eye in an environment where the geopolitical aspirations of Russia were to gain more territory and support Serbia.  An overly leader-oriented approach towards the WB6 reinforces and legitimises the position of Western Balkan political elites who use the EU’s public endorsement to reinforce their grip on society. The EU regularly proves unable to reward progress because it is difficult to find common understanding among its member states, thereby harming its credibility. Engagement with political leaders rather than civil society within the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia hampers effective democratisation. In Serbia, the EU’s leader-oriented interaction frequently coincides with undue praise for national leaders.

The tendency to indirectly support powerful figures able to guarantee stability, in the case of Serbia is pretty evident. Hence, because Belgrade is ‘needed’ to resolve the issue, US and EU officials turn a blind eye to the regime’s “institutional” corruption and methodical evisceration of democracy at home. Belgrade’s naked revisionism goes largely unchallenged. Brussels and Washington have become participants in a charade perpetrated by Vucic, supplicating an autocratic regime that manifestly is not interested in making EU reforms, and is “strategically” aligned (ever more closely) with Russia, China, and Hungary. Yet, the EU constantly asks Kosovo for more concessions. 

Examples of this include Kosovo’s attempt to establish reciprocal measures regarding licence plates, Serbia’s threats of military action, and its demands for an Association of Serb Municipalities at a time ethnic Albanians are being ‘administratively cleansed’ from entire areas of Serbia. The last attempt made by Borrell and Lajcak has brought to the verbal agreement of the Franco-German proposal and the Consequent Annex. As for the Brussels Agreement in 2013, the aim is to seek an interim agreement rather than a comprehensive settlement and it is marked by the conclusion of ambiguous talks, not binding, and difficult to be implemented. 

Another factor that has contributed to the EU’s ineffective mediation efforts is the influence of Russia and China in the Balkans. Both countries have been actively working to undermine the EU’s influence in the region and to promote their agenda. This has made it difficult for the EU to achieve its goals and maintain a cohesive approach toward resolving the conflict. 

The deadlock of the enlargement process

One of the major obstacles to progress in these negotiations is the EU’s tendency towards deadlock in the enlargement process. This approach has been used to pressure both countries into making concessions, but it can also lead to stalemates and a lack of progress. EU engagement rests on the dual tracks of conflict mediation, on the one hand, and EU accession on the other, a complementary and at times conflicting strategy that the EU has utilised in former Yugoslavia with varying degrees of success since the early 2000s.

Part of the problem is that the EU and influential member states remain ambivalent about taking in new members or other steps toward greater integration; indeed, Brussels has reneged on or delayed some of its promises to Balkan states. While EU integration could have offered an incentive for parties to seek a compromise, the prospect of membership remains remote. Years after Kosovo completed the EU’s wish list for visa-free travel, it remains the only Balkan country without that privilege. During the Swedish Presidency of the Council finally, the promise made years ago has been finally maintained

On the other hand, it was quite incentivizing for Serbia to link the process of integration with the dispute with Kosova since the EU had in plan to use this means just as an instrument to be more constructive in the dialogue but without asking Serbia to fully recognize Kosovo’s independence. Therefore, while some issues, such as economic cooperation and regional stability, may be relevant to the enlargement process, other issues such as the recognition of Kosovo’s independence or the status of Serbs in Kosovo may be outside the scope of the enlargement process. To conclude, while the enlargement process can provide a framework for dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, it may not be the most appealing means of dialogue, and other approaches such as direct negotiations or mediation may be more effective in resolving the issues that are important to both sides.

Overall, the EU’s approach to mediation in the Kosovo conflict is complex and multifaceted. While there are certainly obstacles to progress, there are also opportunities for the EU to take a more proactive and effective approach to resolving the conflict. By prioritising democratic principles and human rights, engaging more directly with the parties involved, and taking a more assertive stance towards Russia and China, the EU may be able to help facilitate a more meaningful and sustainable resolution to this long-standing conflict. The economic presence of the EU in the Western Balkan and the financial support together with the substantial investment in terms of the development of institutions is essential in the region and has been crucial for Kosova. What is needed now is an effective commitment within the EU and lobbying towards the five member states that  do not recognize Kosovo, to make these negotiations more balanced ,and thereby find a definitive solution for this ongoing tension. 

However, this is only possible if the EU replaces the strategy of rewarding Belgrade and pressures Prishtina with a focus on shaping the strategic foundation for a negotiated settlement. Whether this gradualist, process-oriented approach marked by creative ambiguities will become a successful model of conflict resolution depends on the ability to convert silences into clarity and the formalisation of relations at the end of the process.