Only a couple of weeks ago, it seemed that the United States has the initiative in the process of the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. In just several days, however, the planned June 27 meeting in the White House was cancelled, and it was announced that the renewal of the EU-facilitated Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue will take place on 12 July in Brussels.
The renewal seems to be the right term, given the fact that the previous round of EU-mediated Dialogue took place on 8 November 2018. High Representative of the Union at the time, Federica Mogherini, stated that the European Union expects Serbia and Kosovo to swiftly deliver on their commitment to the Dialogue on the comprehensive normalisation of relations. The progress towards this goal has been almost completely lacking ever since.
The time for a reset seems to have finally arrived and, provided there are no last-minute cancellations, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister of Kosovo Avdullah Hoti are set to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron via video link today, and then on Sunday with the High Representative Josep Borrell and EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue Miroslav Lajčák.
According to Marko Savković, Executive Director of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, EU initiatives are coming now because pre-conditions have been created at last – a Special Representative has been appointed, his team has been formed, and Berlin (and Paris) have given him the necessary support; elections in Serbia ended without a change of government; and a new government has been formed in Kosovo that has abolished tariffs unconditionally. Even though its majority is the thinnest possible (61 out of 120 MPs), for now there are no indications of new elections, Savković reminds.
The initiative on behalf of the EU has obviously been led by Paris and Berlin. Even though Germany has long been regarded as the driving force behind EU’s mediation efforts due to its closer ties with the region, over the past year or so President Emmanuel Macron has made it clear that his country is increasingly interested in resolving the issue. He demonstrated this once again this week by hosting first Hoti and then Vučić individually before the Summit.
An injection of political will
Executive Director of the CiviKos Platform and member of Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) Donika Emini says for the European Western Balkans that the urgency to host high level meetings, especially with France and Germany, is a clear indication that the EU is trying to add political will and power to the process that will be then led by Lajčák and Borell in the framework of the EU facilitated Dialogue in Brussels.
“In addition to this, France has been recognized as the only political obstacle blocking the visa liberalisation of Kosovo. Henceforth, this meeting sent messages of general political support which can also include the visa liberalisation process – a process that has immensely diminished the credibility of the EU in Kosovo, especially to its ability to deliver on sensitive political issues such as the Dialogue”, Emini emphasises.
The visa liberalisation process has once again been picked up by the European Parliament in recent weeks, with dozens of MEPs sending a letter first to German Presidency, and then precisely to the President of France, as well as Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte, to reach a positive decision on this issue. European Commission assessed that Kosovo had fulfilled all EU criteria for visas to be lifted in July 2018.
While Prime Minister of Kosovo Hoti met with Macron earlier this week, stating after it that France remains committed to support Kosovo in the dialogue process with Serbia, which should lead to mutual recognition and the normalization of relations, there have been no reports on the visa liberalisation.
Donika Emini reminds that Macron has been proposing a Paris Summit between Serbia and Kosovo at least since last year – it was left on hold since July 2019 because of the explicit rejection of the Former Kosovo PM Ramush Haradinaj to lift the tariffs imposed toward goods from Serbia and BiH. This means that he should be aware of the importance of visa liberalisation for moving the process forward, and the meetings today and Sunday could provide clearer indicators of where France stands on this issue.
No breakthrough expected, at least not yet
Both of our interlocutors do not expect anything huge to be agreed upon this week. This point of view was also taken by the President of Serbia, who stated following the meeting with his French counterpart on Thursday that trying to find a clear-cut formula overnight would not lead to a resolution, but that there are many small steps that can improve relations between Serbs and Albanians first.
However, Donika Emini points out that the expectations are high as these meetings are coming after a cancelled one in the White House, which had been openly rejected by Germany.
“For the EU, this is the last chance to prove that they are a credible mediator fully committed with a more proactive hands on approach capable of delivering tangible outcomes”, Emini says.
According to Marko Savković, the first step logical step after a two-year hiatus is to determine whether the interlocutors have the mandate to continue the Dialogue itself. Supposing that they have, although it might be expected that some will point at the boycotted elections in Serbia followed by a series of protests, as well as the bare minimum of working majority Hoti’s Government currently has, the second step is to determine how far the implementation of the agreements reached so far has progressed.
Savković says that these include the so-called “technical issues”, such as trade and university diplomas, as well as the part most important for Belgrade: the Association/Community of Serb Municipalities.
“Some of the agreements have been unilaterally partially implemented, although the Dialogue has stopped, the example being the energy agreement, where licensing of companies is still lacking”, Savković reminds. Association of Serb Municipalities, agreed upon in the Agreement on the first principles on the comprehensive normalisation of relations in 2013, however, has still not been established.
The remaining unknown in this equation is the United States, Savković concludes.
“It finds itself in front of a choice – whether to support the Europeans and the political process that Lajčák will lead, or to try again with their “economic initiative”, which has its value, but only as part of the process, not a substitute for it”, he says.
Speaking for Gazeta Express earlier this week, US Special Envoy for the Dialogue Richard Grenell said that the European initiative has the full support of the United States and that he is pleased to see the Europeans will convene meeting on 12 July in Brussels for further discussions with Kosovo and Serbia. Grenell added that the issue of visa liberalisation for Kosovo will be completed at this meeting and that US has never believed in a quick election-year deal between Kosovo and Serbia, as some commentators believed.
With a political situation still shaky in both Serbia and Kosovo and the COVID-19 pandemic far from over, it seems that the renewal of the Dialogue might prove to be only a small step towards the ultimate conclusion of the process after all.