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EU – Kosovo/Serbia: where is the train headed for?

Troubling news continue to come from the Balkans. Two rounds of talks in the framework of the High Level Dialogue for the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina were hosted by High Representative Federica Mogherini respectively on 24 January and on February first. Tensions escalated before the meeting when Serbia attempted to send a passenger train emblazoned with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” in several languages to the Serb enclave of northern Kosovo and started to build up a wall in Mitrovica to divide Kosovo Serbs from Albanians. Thus, both parties were invited to participate at the EU-backed High Level Dialogue in order to minimise, if not erase, any risk to blow up what already have been achieved as far as the normalisation of the relations between Belgrade and Pristina concerns.

Continuous incidents feed tensions between parties

On Saturday, 14 January a Serbian train decorated and painted down the side nationalist slogans and images departed from Belgrade and headed for northern Kosovo, but it was stopped before crossing the border and a dramatic escalation of tensions between the former wartime foes began. The train was seen as provocative by Pristina as it was decorated with Serbian flags, religious Christian Orthodox scenes and the words “Kosovo is Serbia” were painted in 20 languages. Officials in Kosovo had protested that the train’s planned route into Kosovo was a violation of their country’s sovereignty and promised not to let it in. On the other side Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić ordered the train stopped in Raska, before crossing the border, claiming that ethnic Albanians in Kosovo had tried to mine the railway. A word war begun as accusations and counteraccusations came from both sides. Different opinions and analysis were provided by citizens, politicians and medias.

The “provocative” train isn’t the first incident registered between Belgrade and Pristina during last past months. On the first weekend of December 2016 local Serbs authorities started building a wall on the Serb north side of the Ibar river in Mitrovica which is just next to the bridge that ethnically divides the town’s Serb-dominated north and largely Albanian-populated south. Albanian officials saw its construction as unconstitutional act that risks further divisions between two ethnic groups in Mitrovica while the mayor of the north Mitrovica stated that the wall will not be demolished. A revitalisations of tensions between Belgrade and Pristina was feared. Beside the general political discourse what seems important to understand is not the wall or a train itself but the general tense political climate that generates likely incidents.

Historical background

Kosovo with its contested statehood has been and still is potentially the most explosive issue of contemporary Europe. After the former Yugoslavia broke-up in the 1990s, Serbia responded to separatist pressure from Kosovo by launching a brutal crackdown on the territory’s Albanian population, which was only brought to an end by Nato military intervention in 1999.

Almost two decades have passed since the 1998/’99 war and the NATO bombardment against Serbia but tensions are still visible between the two parties, particularly in the city of Mitrovica. UN resolution 1244, adopted in 1999, after NATO intervention against Serbia, authorised an international civil and military presence in Kosovo and established the United Nations Interim Administration Mission (UNMIK). In June 1999 NATO-led Kosovo force (KFOR) and UNMIK represented the presence of international community on the ground leading one of the most costly peace-building operations ever. Five years after starting peace-building operations a failure of international community in achieving progress and changing the situation became clear with the riots carried out in March 2004 in Kosovo.

Since 2005, under the leadership of former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, international community made further efforts to resolve the question of Kosovo’s status. Those efforts unfortunately didn’t bring the hoped-for comprehensive solution. As talks on its final status came to a dead point, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, after years of strained relations between its Serb and mainly Albanian inhabitants. It has been recognised by the United States and major European Union countries (with the exception of Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain) but Serbia, backed by its powerful ally Russia.

Reconciliation between the majority Albanians, most of whom support independence, and the Serb minority remains elusive. Since Kosovo turned independent, Serbia has been resisting the integration of Kosovo into regional and international institutions. Belgrade also continues to support “parallel structures” in northern Kosovo— where the Serbs are in the majority—that keep this area out of the control of the authorities in Pristina. In the summer and fall of 2011, tensions in the North area rose, threatening a wider crisis. Serbia has been trying to keep its policy on Kosovo separate from its ambitions to join the European Union. However, the EU has made clear that Serbia’s progress toward accession depends on Belgrade improving its relations with Kosovo.

What has EU done so far?

On regard to Kosovo European Union has played a leading role in the international effort to build a new future for it since 1999. Kosovo has a clear European perspective as part of the wider Western Balkans region. The EU is active in Kosovo through its Special Representative (EUSR), and the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) mission in the rule of law area (EULEX). The EU is also present through member countries’ Embassies and Liaison offices. The European Union Office in Kosovo plays a crucial role in implementing the EU agenda in the territory, especially the promotion of European norms. The Office ensures permanent political and technical dialogue between Kosovo and the EU institutions. The EUSR offers advice and support to the Government of Kosovo, coordinates the EU presence, and promotes human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) is the largest civilian mission ever launched under the European Security and Defence Policy. The aim of the mission is to assist the Kosovar authorities in the area of rule of law, specifically in the police, judiciary and customs. EULEX is a technical mission that mentors, monitors and advises, while retaining a number of limited executive powers. Besides, the relatively smooth deployment of the mission throughout Kosovo since December 2008 and the reasonably positive record of its first semester of operational activity go to the credit of the overall professionalism and commitment of the mission staff. The launch of such a large and ambitious mission in a turbulent political context invites, however, to reflect on a few key questions.

There is a mismatch between foreign policy and ESDP. Incapable to reach a common position of the question of the status of Kosovo, nevertheless EU member countries have agreed to establish an ESDP mission that had been originally conceived to underpin the ‘supervised’ independence of Kosovo itself. It is understood that all EU Member States support the building of accountable and effective rule-of-law institutions in Kosovo and that, more broadly, all agree that the future of Kosovo and other Western Balkan countries lies in EU membership. However, launching EULEX as a quick technical mission in a country characterised by an unresolved political problem could only create tensions at both the political and operational level. A very substantial degree of political ambiguity and diplomatic skill within the EU and the UN has, in this case, averted this danger and enabled EULEX to enter its operational phase. In future, more thinking will have to be devoted by EU Member States to the intersection between foreign policy and ESDP, if the two are to be mutually reinforcing.

The second issue regards EULEX itself and its ability to move on from initial achievements to structurally tackling the reform of rule-of-law institutions as well as the root causes of their fragility, namely corruption and organised crime. This challenge is closely linked to another issue facing the mission, namely striking the right balance between the direct exercise of executive functions and the transfer of ownership and responsibility to Kosovo authorities – the stated aim of the mission. Most of the political class remains more committed in words than in deeds, while the lines between political, economic and criminal networks are difficult to clear cut. Short of much stronger local commitment and capacity to address crime and corruption and uphold the rule of law, the impact of EULEX will not be decisive. From this standpoint, the specific efforts of EULEX to engage and support local civil society organisations are very important and should be pursued further.

A third question relates to civilian ESDP as such, and to the potentially growing gap between the supply and the demand of resources. This is relevant both for EULEX, which has not yet reached full strength and perhaps never will, and for future ESDP missions. As noted above, running an operation like EULEX marks a change of gear in ESDP. It is legitimate to wonder whether such change of gear will prove sustainable, whether in terms of procurement and mission support, personnel requirements or planning and conduct structures.

Economic relations
The European Union plays an important role in the reconstruction and development of Kosovo not only through its institutions but through its member states as well. Thus, the EU is by far the single largest donor providing assistance to Kosovo and the Western Balkan region, and is at the forefront of the reconstruction effort.

Since the end of the war Kosovo has received more than €2.3 billion in EU assistance and close to €1 billion in support to international presence. This support was initially focused most on emergency actions and reconstruction but later on shifted to the promotion of Kosovo’s institutions and on its European future perspective. Eighteen EU countries maintain representative offices in Kosovo, and many non-governmental organisations from EU countries are active there. In the context of the Stabilisation and Association Process that is seeking to bring Kosovo into line with European norms, Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance Programme and Stabilisation and Association Agreements, in terms of agreements and treaties, need to be mentioned.

Serbia’s path to European Union

What about Serbia? The EU is about to open two more chapters in the negotiations with Serbia which should be able to join the EU around 2020, but only if it has developed by that time essentially normal relations with its southern neighbour. Through the strong use of incentives and conditionality, the EU recently helped to solve some of the acute problems in the North Kosovo and to open the door to its participation in regional cooperation. The overall situation, however, remains unsatisfactory and potentially unstable. There are two key issues addressed by the accession talks with Belgrade: first Belgrade will need to remain fully committed to the normalisation of relations with Pristina and continue to deliver on implementation of all dialogue agreements (Chapter 35 – Other issues); and second reforms in the area of rule of law, covered by Chapters 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) and 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security) need to be finalised.

The EU considers that Serbia and Kosovo’s EU accession processes and the normalisation of their relations ‘should run parallel’, until a ‘legally binding agreement’ is reached, allowing both sides to fully exercise their rights and fulfil their responsibilities. In 2008, the Council of the EU declared that each Member State would decide alone on its relations with Kosovo. As five Member States have not recognised Kosovo’s independence, the EU has not been able to adopt a common position. Instead, it adopted a so-called ‘status neutrality’ approach and tied both sides’ EU accession to ‘a visible and sustainable improvement’ in their relations, rather than to the formal recognition of Kosovo.

The biggest step reached regarding the normalisation of the relations between the two neighbours is the so-called Brussels Agreement signed by the parties in April 2013 with the mediation of then High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ashton. It was thought to mark a historical breakthrough as the parties reached a vey important 15-point agreement. It was historic indeed as the EU succeeded in making the parties to sign an agreement although it’s real success depends on implementation. Serbia succeeded in giving a strong signal of willingness to proceed in its path toward the EU although without recognising Kosovo’s independence and Kosovo could keep its hope that Belgrade would not obstruct its recognition by international bodies like UN alive, as parties agreed on a very crucial point – not to hinder the other’s efforts to gain EU membership.

EU as a mediator still lacks of leverage in turning the Balkans European

Trying to connect the dots and reflecting on the EU role as a mediator in the framework of normalising Belgrade – Pristina relations a few questions come to mind: How credible can be a non homogenous entity in addressing such a big issue? Nine years after declaring independence Kosovo still has not much to celebrate about. EU couldn’t reach a common position on regard to Kosovo status as 5 out of 28 still don’t recognise its independence. Remaining stick in “neutrality status” trap don’t help in solving out such a complicate situation.

What about the EU impartiality? This brings us back to the question of homogeneity above mentioned. Considering separately the EU itself and member states rises doubts on impartiality. On one hand Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain don’t recognise Kosovo’s independence and on the other hand member states like France, Germany and United Kingdom directly participated in the bombing campaign against Serbia. Can impartial parts make up a whole (EU) characterised by impartiality?

Why should EU member states agree in importing more territorial conflicts and disputes within European Union? It can be said that this issue is of a core importance for EU because just a peaceful Balkans region can be a desirable neighbour for the Union itself. It is obvious that the process of fully normalising relations between Belgrade and Pristina is challenging for all concerned. However, their strong interest in progressing toward the EU should give Brussels some leverage to move this process forward. Finally, the EU has the responsibility to drive this “train” but first it needs to have clear in mind the destination it wants to reach.

Zana Çanaku

To find out more:

European Parliament, Directorate General for External Policies, Policy department. « EULEX Kosovo: lessons learned and future challenges », Brussels, September 2009.

Leon Malazogu and Florian Bieber. « The Future of Interaction between Prishtina and Belgrade. » Südosteuropa Mitteilungen 05-06 (2012): 26-43.

Papadimitriu, Dimitri, Petrov, Petar (2012). « Whose Rule, Whose Contested Statehood, External Leverage and the European Union’s Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo ». Journal Of Common Market Studies. Vol. 50, no. 5, pp. 746-763.

Weller, Marc. “Negotiating the final status of Kosovo”, Chaillot Paper no. 114, EU Institute for Security Studies, Paris, December 2008.


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Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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