Why the German-French initiative on Kosovo-Serbia won’t add up

Today, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is hosting Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić for highly-expected negotiations on a proposed agreement, which is being presented as a major step towards normalizing relations between the two Western Balkan countries and ending the decades-long dispute over the status of Kosovo. 

Negotiations on the proposed deal, also dubbed the German-French proposal, and supported by the US, have been going on since autumn last year in secrecy, leaving observers confused about its content, the character of the proposal, and the political approach behind it. Unlike during earlier stages in the decade-old, EU-led political dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, negotiations have been accompanied by an extraordinary escalation of friction on the ground in the majority-Serb northern enclave in Kosovo. The trigger was a decision by Prime Minister Kurti to finally implement a long-delayed decision to require Serbs in northern Kosovo to register for Republic of Kosovo license plates. This has long been a contentious issue, because the current plates are issued by Serbian authorities. Months of negotiations – and western entreaties not to not implement the decision in the lack of agreement,  led to Serbs erecting barricades in the north. Kosovo Serb employees of the police, judicial, and municipal institutions in these four municipalities (North Mitrovica, Zvečan, Zubin Potok, and Leposavić) resigned from their posts in early November after Prishtina had removed the Serb police commander in the north – reversing the main achievement of the political dialogue to date. To fill the void, Prishtina deployed special Kosovan police to the region, further raising tensions. In December, Serbs erected barricades in the north. These were only removed after a preliminary agreement on the license plate issue was reached in Brussels.

No less confusing, EU negotiators and the lead Western capitals behind the initiative (Berlin, Paris, and Washington) in recent weeks have indentified, and publicly labeled, Prishtina as the negotiating party blocking an agreement – the side that, unlike the leadership in Belgrade, stands for Western, liberal democratic values. The Kurti government has been castigated for its resistance to the proposal based on political positions that were, until recently, held by Berlin and others. These include insistence on a final, comprehensive agreement, or the position that the establishment of the contentious, so-called Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities (ASM) should only proceed within the framework of a final agreement and formal-legal recognition of Kosovo by Serbia.  Prishtina has to a large degree undermined its own negotiating position by the erratic performance of its highest officials on the diplomatic stage and by long-held dogmatic political positions, particularly regarding Kosovo Serbs.

With several more or less authentic draft versions having been leaked in recent weeks, the cornerstones of the proposal have recently come into clearer focus.  The “normalization” proposal foresees what is billed by its advocates as mutual “de facto recognition,” not the de jure recognition which was the predicate for launching the dialogue. The wording of the 1972 German-German basic agreement is essentially replicated. Serbia would commit to cease working against Kosovo applying for membership in international organisations and to undermine Kosovos EU integration path. And the proposal frontloads implementation of all previously agreed agreements, in  particular the establishment of the (still undefined) Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities (ASM). Special legal status for the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo is also a provision. The rationale behind shifting away from the previous goal of the dialogue – a a final, comprehensive agreement – remains opaque.

Since its launch in 2012, the political dialogue has gone through several phases. Seizing leadership, the then-German chancellor Merkel set the framework of the dialogue by insisting the era of border changes in the Balkans was long past, linking Serbia’s EU membership aspirations with accepting the fact of having lost Kosovo. An incremental approach was chosen, with Belgrade gradually accepting aspects of Kosovo as an independent state,  removing its state institutions from the ten majority Serb-inhabited municipalities in Kosovo, and Serbia in parallel progressing on its EU path. The 2013 April Agreement led to the historic first integration of Serbian police and judiciary into the Kosovo state in the north, and the establishment of local authorities following municipal elections. Then-Prime Minister Ivica Dačić explained to his citizens Serbia had to face the reality Kosovo was gone. At the time, this seemed like a watershed.

That approach, however gradually slowed to a crawl, becoming deadlocked after 2015 over the issue of the competences of the ASM, left open in the April Agreement. To rescue the dialogue the EU in 2017 announced the beginning of a new phase, negotiations on a final, comprehensive, legally binding agreement. Western negotiators, however turned that phase into ist opposite, by colluding with the then Serbian and Kosovo leaders, President Vučić and his counterpart Hashim Thaçi in pushing for an ethnonterritorial partition, “land swap” deal (billed as “adjustment of the administrative line” by Belgrade and “border correction” in Prishtina). Negotiations for the first three years were led by the then EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini and her team, and after the end of her mandate in 2019, continued for another year by the Trump administration under special envoy Richard Grenell untill they hit the wall, culminating in a photo op deal in September 2020 that dealt with none of the major outstanding issues. The incoming Biden administration renounced the idea of the land swap, as did the EU.A two-year intermezzo under the newly-appointed EU special representative Miroslav Lajčák followed, focusing on seemingly less contentious bilateral issues, whichled nowhere.

In contrast, the current proposal represents a hard to define, but ill-designed interim agreement. Various complications attend it: the main carrots offered to Prishtina, such as  a change in position of at least some of the 5 EU member state non-recognizers or Kosovo’s membership in international organizations, have to take the form of oral promises, based on the logic of “trust us.” The same goes for Western “guarantees” regarding the ASM, a form of collective governance of the 10 Serb majority-inhabited municipalities agreed on in the April 2013 Agreement, but never substantively defined. The proposal envisions and ASM established outside the framework of a final agreement and prior to formal recognition of Kosovo by Serbia. Kosovo fears, looking to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska, that the ASM will in the future be turned into a tool for ethnoterritorial autonomy, and ultimate secesssion. There are no assurances that a shift in position of part of the non-recognizers (also not assured), would free the way for also Kosovo to progress on its EU path and whether Belgrade would return to a more emollient tone regarding Kosovo, as seen in 2013.

The agreement, if signed and implemented, would most probably lead to substantial, immediate progress, with Kosovo gaining membership in international organizations (e.g. Council of Europe, Interpol, UNESCO), several EU non-recognizers would likely reconsider, and tensions in northern Kosovo and with Belgrade would cool down.

But it would ultimately fail in the long-term perspective, due to the very same reason the original, incremental dialogue approach failed over time:  the lack of a strategic masterplan, a written and public roadmap defining the next and remaing steps up to the endpoint, recognition of Kosovo by Serbia. As proven in the past, the EU and the US lack the will or capacity to play the long game. Instead, over time, with political attention in the capitals shifting to other global hot spots, manuvering space will again open for the local actors to slow down, undermine and ultimately reverse progress.

Back in 2013, the West’s intial, tactical trade of democracy for the dialogue, without a long-term strategy, enabled the rise of the Vučić regime and the authoritarian-autocratic consolidation in Serbia. Exploiting the strategic vacuum in the dialogue, using it as a shield against critique for domestic democratic backsliding, and the weakening of the EU’s enlargement leverage due to rising internal divisions, Belgrade turned from a constructive to a destabilizing regional force. The ideological concept of Srpski Svet, a copy of Putin’s Russkiy Mir has effectively been adopted by Belgrade – without Western resistance. Serbia has escalated  through its massive political, social, and cultrual intervention in fellow EU candidate (and NATO member) Montenegro. There has been no consequence; Vučić is still embraced as a de facto ally of the West, despite this track record.

No less important, the current proposal offers no solution to the Kosovo Serb issue. The failure of the dialogue has turned Kosovo Serbs from its main object into its main collateral damage. In the strategic vacuum, the West’s  tacit approval in 2013 for Belgrade to form a unified political list in Kosovo, the Serbian List (Srpska Lista),  introduced an effective one-party (controlled by Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party – SNS) system in the 10 municipalities, merging with the all-pervading organized criminal network. Unlike the general Western perception, the ASM was never designed as a practical instrument for integration of the Serbs into Kosovo state and society, but as a face-saving tool for Belgrade and for Serbia’s need to tell Serbs in the north they will ultimately be governed from Prishtina, de jure. For sustainably integrating Kosovo Serbs, it is necessary to get the Serbian state out of Kosovo and to reverse the authoritarian-criminal transformation in the Serb-majority municipalities. This requirement seems not even an afterthought in the West, where a strategic void prevails.

Finally, the opting for an intermediate step seems to be based of the West‘s self-assessment of possessing  diminshed leverage over Serbia. The conclusion seems to be that it is not commensurate at this point in time with the goal of a final agreement with formal recgonition. This false assumption, follows the EU’s self-weakening due to actors like French president Emmanuel Macron undermining the joint enlargement policy and the Biden administration by and large continuing the Serbia-focused, transactional policy approach towards the Western Balkans of the Trump administration. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy courting of Vučić that will not add up in the long run, not least because under the current regime, an authoritarian-autocratically transformed Serbia will never develop the democratic capacities to ever enter the EU.

Instead, the only real solution lies in directly negotiating on a final, comprehensive agreement, based on the EU and the US getting its act together in the region: that is, for the EU to end its divisions over its enlargement policy towards the Western Balkans, and the West making a profound, strategic U-turn in its Serbia policy, towards one founded in liberal-democratic principles and values. This would require applying the substantial – and now increased – Western leverage over Serbia to decisively pressure Belgrade towards a principled shift in its policy on Kosovo and on Russia. 

The current geopolitical context of the Ukraine war, the revival of the EU’s enlargement policy with the extraordinary granting of candiate status to Ukraine in June last year, provide a unique window of opportunity to do so.