When EU conditionality works – understanding the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo

The agreement between Belgrade and Pristina demonstrates that EU conditionality can – when carefully employed – induce concession and compromise, suggesting that it may be capable of acting more coherently, consistently and credibly towards the Western Balkans.

By Soeren Keil

It has been fascinating to follow academics and policy makers alike criticising the engagement of the European Union (EU) in the Western Balkans over the last five years. They argued that the EU was not fully engaged, or it was engaged to deeply and did not allow for the development of local structures and grass-roots democracy. They suggested that a long-term strategy is missing and that EU conditionality as part of the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP) would fail in countries that remain essentially contested states. The recent agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, signed under the guidance and moderation of EU experts, might mean that we have to change our perception on the EU’s role in the Western Balkans.

It was deeply troubling that five EU member states refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence in 2008, and the EU failed once again to find a united approach towards one of the most important foreign policy development in the Western Balkans. Surely, these five member states did not reject Kosovo’s independence because of their close ties with Serbia (probably with the exception of Greece), but because they feared that recognising the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo’s parliament would stir regional conflicts in their borders. Spain has witnessed the rise of Basque and Catalan nationalism in the last 30 years and debates about secession are very popular in Seville and Barcelona. Romania continues to have problematic relationships with Hungary because of the Hungarian minority in Romania and its demand for territorial autonomy. Greek-Cypriots, too feel that recognising Kosovo might lead to a shift in international politics, by which secession and partition become accepted policies. In the Cypriot case, one has to ask if this would not be a good option for an island that has failed to reunite peacefully and fairly for nearly 30 years.

Nevertheless, Kosovo’s independence and European failure to act coherently meant that once again the EU failed to accept its leadership role in the Western Balkans. The EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) had to be readjusted so that it would be “status-neutral” and the EU could not take over from the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), which remained in the country. While gaining the support of Russia and China was important for Serbia’s strategy to block Kosovo’s entry into the UN, it could be argued that splitting the EU over the Kosovo issue was even more important. If the EU would have been united on this issue it would have been hard for the Serbian president, Boris Tadic, to justify his country’s aspiration of becoming an EU Member while at the same time maintaining that Kosovo remains an integral part of Serbia. However, because the EU was split, Tadic and his colleagues could point to the fact that Kosovo’s independence has not even persuaded everyone in the EU, so why should Serbia recognise what it considers to be an illegal act of secession? The EU, therefore, contributed to a stronger Serbian position in the aftermath of Kosovo’s independence. It also contributed to the fact that the Kosovo Albanian leadership focused its lobbying and attention on relations with the USA, rather than with the EU. Once again, one might have concluded in 2008 that the EU missed a great opportunity to play a key role in its own backyard. Once again, it was the Americans that had to jump in and lead the way. Once again, the EU has proven that it is incapable of acting coherently in foreign policy and developing a consistent strategy for the Western Balkans.

While a lot of these criticisms are true (and this author contributed to some of them), we might just have to adjust our critique in the light of recent events. At the end of February 2012, Serbia and Kosovo came to an Agreement over some very important issues. Serbia agreed to allow Kosovo to participate in regional organisations and arrangements for border controls at the Serbian and Kosovar border were also agreed. While Kosovo had to drop its “Republic of” and will become a famous “footnote country,” its presence in international organisations and the fact that there is a new border patrol regime in place with Serbia will also strengthen its ambitions to become a fully recognised state. What is fascinating about the Agreement is the fact that it seems to be an extension of the classical “win-win” situation. Serbia can see itself as a winner, because it has demonstrated its ability to be flexible, contribute to peace and still maintain its core position on Kosovo. Kosovo can see itself as a winner, because it will become a more serious international actor and presumably future Agreements with Serbia will lead to further concessions. With Serbia and Kosovo having agreed once as equal partners, this will become the norm in future negotiations.

The real winner in these negotiations, however, was the European Union. The EU used its conditionality very carefully. It used the incentives of candidate status for Serbia and the start of the enlargement process for Kosovo very skilfully. While doing so, it was not afraid of being tough, for example when European leaders refused Serbia the status of a candidate country last year after new violence broke out in Northern Kosovo. Serbia had an important incentive to agree, namely the award of an official EU candidate country status. This is particularly important, because elections will take place later this year in Serbia and president Tadic and his Democratic Party will have to explain the worsened economic situation in the country as a result of the financial crisis. Success in foreign policy and in particular in the process of EU integration will help persuade Serbian voters and will also make future concessions on Kosovo easier.

The Kosovo elites had no real alternatives. They had to agree on an arrangement, because if the EU would have blamed them for a lack of progress, it might have resulted in a situation in which the EU would have awarded candidate status to Serbia even without an agreement on Kosovo. Further, their letter with key demands that was circulated before the last round of negotiations in February 2012 completely backfired and isolated them. EU participants saw this as unprofessional and applied strong pressure on the Kosovo negotiators to be more flexible. In the end, it worked. Kosovo can now hope that the EU Commission will start a Feasibility Study soon, which will assess if Kosovo is ready to become formally part of the SAP and start negotiating a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. Formalising Kosovo’s EU integration, in particular as a separate process from Serbia’s integration, is of key importance, for the EU because it gives it new incentives and for the Kosovo elites, because their success in foreign policy has been very limited since the country became independent in 2008.

All in all, it can be argued that the EU sponsored and moderated talks between Serbia and Kosovo can be seen as a perfect success story of EU conditionality. Serbia and Kosovo profit from the Agreement, but most importantly EU credibility in the Western Balkans and in foreign policy more generally will increase. This is particularly important when looking at the growing anti-European tendencies in Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and even Croatia, the country that will become the EU’s 28th Member State in July 2013. The Serbia-Kosovo Agreement demonstrated that the EU matters in the region and that it can use its “soft-power” to promote peace, cooperation and compromise. The importance of this cannot be overestimated.

What the Serbia-Kosovo Agreement does not stand for is a solution to Kosovo’s contested statehood. However, this could not be expected from such an Agreement. It is a first Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo as equal actors, and it demonstrates that the EU and particularly the incentive of eventual membership in the Union can still result in important compromises and policy changes in the region. What remains to be done is to follow this Agreement up by further talks on technical issues such as electricity, birth registrations and even citizenship and visas. Furthermore, the new credibility of the EU in the region should be used to re-vitalise the talks on constitutional reform in Bosnia and on a compromise in the Macedonian name dispute. When using its conditionality carefully, the EU can be an important actor and can influence policy change in its favour.

Dr. Soeren Keil is a lecturer in International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church, UK.

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