Prompted by violence in northern Kosovo during the summer of 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel seized EU leadership on the Kosovo-Serbia dispute. This represented a game changer in the West’s protracted efforts to promote a settlement. A resolution of the status dispute using a classical conflict mediation approach had failed in 2007 with the collapse of the Troika negotiation (the US/EU/Russia led negotiations) and Serbia’s rejection of the Ahtisaari plan. This was due to Belgrade’s decades-long ‘virtual’ Kosovo policy, which was reduced to an insistence on Kosovo’s status as part of Serbia, while not seriously accepting the majority Albanian population as equal citizens. It left the formalization of the fact that Serbia had effectively lost Kosovo through its declaration of independence as the only potentially viable and sustainable solution to the long-term status dispute.
Merkel, strongly supported by the UK and US, explicitly linked Serbia’s recognition of an independent Kosovo to Belgrade’s EU membership aspirations during her August 2011 press conference with then-President Boris Tadić. In so doing, she forced a shift in the EU’s relations with Serbia, which had hitherto been determined by an equally ‘virtual’ Serbian policy of “both the EU and Kosovo,” toward a more pragmatic and realistic policy. This defined the framework and final aims of the upcoming political dialogue: territorial integrity, sovereignty and full exercise of international subjectivity for Kosovo, as well as the development of normal bilateral relations between Serbia and Kosovo. This framework was reinforced and defined in greater detail by the Schockenhoff group of German MPs’ ‘seven-point plan’ of September 2012, the 2013 April Agreement, and the dialogue-related aspects of the EU’s 2014 accession negotiating framework with Serbia.
The political dialogue did include an inherent concession to Belgrade: its incremental approach was intended to facilitate the domestic adjustment of Serbian government policy and public discourse on Kosovo independence, in order to allow Serbia’s path to EU membership to progress. In 2013, Serbian officials constructively engaged in the dialogue and shifted their discourse on Kosovo to an unprecedented degree. Yet the EU allowed first Serbia, then Kosovo, to continually delay actual implementation of agreed-upon steps. Belgrade thereby squandered the opportunity offered by the process, instead rekindling hope that it could avoid accepting Kosovo’s independence.
Since then, the EU’s incremental approach has been mired in increasingly toxic stasis, with no foreseeable resolution. A “new phase” was announced in July 2017, framing negotiations on a final, comprehensive and legally binding agreement on full normalization between Kosovo and Serbia as the only viable option. However, this phase remains uninitiated nearly a year later, allowing further drift in Belgrade, Brussels and Prishtina. Serbia, in particular, is engaging in intense political and public spin, advocating “solutions” such as partition or land swaps that fall entirely outside the red lines set by leading EU capitals. The EU’s lead negotiators, Frederica Mogherini and her team, seem to lack an understanding that their role is in upholding and defending red lines and not merely in “facilitation.” Various media reports have raised questions as to whether Prishtina might be amenable to Belgrade’s lobbying for partition.
For a successful outcome to the negotiations on a comprehensive agreement, which would set the stage for a peaceful and democratic future for Kosovo and Serbia, their mutually beneficial and cooperative co-existence, and the future of the wider region, it is essential that the EU (and the US) explicitly reiterate the original framework and aims of the dialogue. It is equally important that Prishtina sticks to the terms under which it originally entered the dialogue.