EU Might Mulled in Kosovo-Serbia Paris Rendezvous

The EU and France are set to press Kosovo and Serbia to discuss proposals to normalise ties in the latest episode of the region’s explosive will-they-won’t-they when the Balkan leaders meet in Paris on Friday.

However, analysts are not convinced as they say results from EU-backed dialogue are few and far between while the EU side lacks the grit needed to hold Serbia accountable.

Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučič travelled to Paris for two days of negotiations on Thursday to discuss proposals described as the latest effort by the EU to normalise relations between the two countries.

The new diplomatic push comes with a flare-up of regional tensions after Kosovo, from 1 November, started implementing in stages a rule which requires all car owners in the country to use plates issued by the Pristina government.

Each leader is set to meet French President Emmanuel Macron and EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell for separate meetings on the sidelines of the Paris Peace Forum, which they are attending.

However, EURACTIV understands the hope in Brussels, and European capitals is that the arch-foes could meet face to face, which would be an important symbolic step in the right direction.

Kurti said in an earlier statement that a trilateral meeting between him, Macron and Vučič could be on the cards. Meanwhile, the EU side hopes a potential follow-up meeting under the Belgrade-Pristina format in Brussels could be possible soon after, according to an EU official who asked to remain anonymous.

In the summer, under the EU-facilitated dialogue, Belgrade and Pristina both had promised to meet at least once a month in Brussels, something that has not materialised so far. This comes after 11 years of EU-backed talks, which have seen more than 35 agreements signed, but most of their provisions unimplemented. 

During this time, the core issue of Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo as an independent country has never been on the table.

An early September Franco-German plan, seen by EURACTIV, rather than recognition and firm deadlines, focused on the normalisation of relations from the perspective of a common EU future, the most critical element being the exchange of permanent missions, similar to embassies but at a lower level. The draft came shortly after Paris and Berlin appointed dedicated envoys to the ongoing situation in the Balkans.

Another draft, published in Balkan media would see Kosovo join the UN while enjoying acceptance not recognition from Belgrade, with Serbia getting more EU cash and fast-tracked bloc membership.

Then at the Berlin Process Summit last week, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell presented an evolved proposal to the parties “to make concrete and irreversible progress on the road to comprehensive normalisation”, which was supported by Germany and France.

Asked whether separate French efforts would be contradictory and would constitution as ‘toe stepping’, an EU official said, “everything is helpful now; the more they get their heads banged at the moment, the better.”

While the meeting is good news, considering the precariousness of the current situation, not everyone is convinced it will bear fruit.

Sidita Kushi, assistant professor at Bridgewater State University and expert in the Balkans, politics, and strategy, told EURACTIV that EU talks so far have resulted in mainly symbolic gestures with little to show. She said it is quite telling that France and Germany appear to be leading the way.

“It is difficult for the EU to act in unison on the Kosovo-Serbia issues given that five of its members remain in opposition to Kosovo’s statehood while others are at most lukewarm about Kosovo’s existence.”

She also criticised the EU’s ‘both sides’ rhetoric, founded in neutrality, stating “the EU dialogue process often implicitly accepts Serbia’s position on Kosovo – that Kosovo does not hold to the same level of formal statehood as Serbia and should therefore be asked to concede more of its sovereignty for the sake of regional stability.”

Examples of this include Kosovo’s attempt to establish reciprocal measures regarding license plates, Serbia’s threats of military action, and its demands for an Association of Serb Municipalities at a time ethnic Albanians are being ‘administratively cleansed’ from entire areas of Serbia.

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“This false neutrality has stalled the EU-led dialogue from the get-go, and this take will only grow more problematic as Kosovo’s government becomes more assertive in protecting its hard-won scraps of statehood,” she explained to EURACTIV.

But in terms of the various agreements on the table, Kushi says Serbia is unlikely to play ball as they all suggest Kosovo sovereignty. However, returning to a neutral stance will never produce meaningful change, and the EU “needs the backbone to act as a fair mediator, not merely a neutral one.”

To sum up the situation, Kushi says the EU continues to look the other way amid democratic backsliding and pro-Russian sentiments.

“Vučič has been able to convince former and current high-level EU officials that Serbia deserves to be compensated for participating in talks with Kosovo, while Kosovo needs to be made to concede more and more.” 

If the leaders come face to face, the question is whether any agreement can be found. In July, Vučič told Euronews Serbia that there would be no dialogue with Kosovo as long as Prime Minister Kurti remains in power in Pristina. 

This, combined with threats of escalation, leaves some wondering if the weight of Berlin and France, backed by the EU and US, is a match for a centuries-old conflict at the region’s heart.