03 July 2019

The Berlin Conference. France and Germany want to unlock the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue

Stelian Teodorescu

Passing over past’s shadows and recent history’s consequences, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH), Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have developed a lot after 1990. Howler, these entities are still far from reaching EU’s standards in many fields, so that to be able to enter the European structure. Germany, France and their EU partners are doing their best to promote reconciliation and cooperation, economic changes and the implementation of different businesses and infrastructure projects.

Image source: Mediafax

The 29.04.2019 Berlin meeting brought together senior officials from all Western Balkans’ entities: BIH Council of Ministers’ President, Denis Zvizdić, President Aleksandar Vučić and Premier Ana Brnabić (Serbia), Kosovo’s President, Hashim Thaçi , North Macedonia’s Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, Albania's Prime Minister, Edi Rama, Montenegrin President, Milo Djukanovic, as well as senior officials from Croatia and Slovenia. It is noteworthy that on 29.04.2019, including European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, attended the meeting with Western Balkan entities’ leaders.

It is also worth noting of M. Dodik’s position, the Bosnian Serb leader and member of BIH’s Presidency, who, despite welcoming the Berlin meeting idea, has disagreed with BIH’s representation being made by Prime Minister Denis Zvizdic, Dodik underlining that "BIH’s Presidency has no competence to represent the country within such an important meeting, this being a violation of BiH’s Constitution."


In Berlin, the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue treaded water

The 29th of April 2019 Berlin event, which should not be confused with Berlin’s Process[1], was organized at the initiative of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, after the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue blockage. This blockage came as a result of Pristina's retaliatory measures in response to Serbia’s lobby against Kosovo's accession to Interpol, in November 2018, measures that were materialized by imposing an extremely high 100% tax on imported goods from Serbia.

Berlin’s efforts have focused on overcoming Belgrade-Pristina’s deadlock, creating cohesion between involved parties and create the proper conditions for dialogue’s resume on the most important issues that have influenced the negotiations: Kosovo's independence recognition and disadvantageous rates’ imposition measure for imported goods from Serbia.

The historic Greece- North Macedonia agreement, which put an end to Macedonian state’s name dispute, revealed that deep differences can also be overcome through mutual trust. Western Balkans’ reconciliation is a very important prerequisite for Western Balkans entities for EU’s integration.

To that end, Germany shows its commitment for the "support and demand" principle, as the German government is supporting many programs that promote region’s economic and political development, however closely monitoring whether the necessary reforms for the EU integration are fully implemented.

Hence, on bilateral talks’ agenda, at the Berlin conference from 29th of April 2019, were introduced topics on region’s general situation, the importance and commitment to regional cooperation, good neighborly relations and reconciliation. The French president and the German Chancellor have stressed that the prospects for joining EU remained in European Commission's responsibility, with Berlin being "rather a stability policy for the region," as the French leader has stated.

Current concerns on situation’s negative evolution outlook, in the Western Balkans, have increased also due to last period’s tendencies of promoting solutions and perspectives involving borders correction, minorities’ perception as threats to regional security, but also Brexit’s possible effects and the alarming signals that have emerged lately about China and Russia’s increasingly role in the region.

Efforts that were made so far apparently had no success, including those made at EU level, whose role in Serbia-Kosovo’s relations’ standardization process is crucial. The European body is unable to persuade both governments to reach a comprehensive and accepted agreement to unblock the dialogue and normalize relations by the end of the current European Commission’s mandate, as previously established. Hereof, the international community welcomed the Berlin event, especially given the forthcoming European Parliament’s elections, which will implicitly generate European Commission’s new future composition.

Germany's initiative was seen, by many international environments, as an image exercise, as Berlin’s attempt to recover and strengthen its leadership role by promoting and supporting the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue. Germany wants to remove the decision that could led to territories changes and borders’ correction on ethnical criteria, which everyone talked so much about lately and divided the international community an both societies, from the decisional alternatives list.

Thus, they seemed to want to give up any ethno-territorial solution, Berlin and Paris attempting to get to a common policy and, therefore, take control of the negotiation process and the political dialogue, as initially created, back in 2013-2015. However, it is unclear whether such an approach could be successful, because Belgrade’s leaders, especially Pristina’s, seem to remain firmly committed to keeping their own estimations and views on Kosovo's independence official recognition.


And yet, what’s the best solution?

The EU-backed Berlin meeting on Western Balkans’ situation ended without major progress in getting Kosovo and Serbia back at the negotiation table. It was not possible to immediately start the negotiations, and another attempt on this matter will take place in early July 2019. It is very unlikely to get to a mandatory agreement, accepted by both parts. However, Kosovo’s President, Hashim Thaçi, and Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vučić, agreed, at the end of Monday (April 29, 2019), to meet again, in Paris, in early July 2019.

As expected, the obvious question is: if changing boundaries on ethnic criteria is not a solution, then what could be the solution for Serbia-Kosovo relations’ standardization process that both parts could agree on?

Therefore, the international media reports on Berlin’s conference also mentioned the "dual sovereignty" concept that would allow a better agreement between Serbia and Kosovo by offering Belgrade a limited sovereignty in critical areas for the Kosovar Serbian community, such as churches and monasteries belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Given these circumstances, it is noteworthy Serbian President’s position, Aleksandar Vučić, who stated, after the meeting, that Belgrade's only request was to revoke the measure of imposing 100% taxes on imported goods from Serbia, while Kosovo’s officials insisted for Serbia to recognize the independence of his former province. "Essentially ... we will have a new meeting in Paris, on 1st  or 2nd of July, where we will try to find a solution for dialogue’s continuation," stated Vučić, for Serbian media. Vučić also argued that "the dialogue, in a smaller format, with the mediation of EU, Germany and France (...) should be continued (...) and it is necessary to try to find the solution that would allow its resumption."

As a response, Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj, said the customs tax imposed on imported goods from Serbia would be maintained until Belgrade will recognize Kosovo's independence, Kosovo’s official also pointing out that Pristina is facing challenges including within the implementation process of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, with the EU (SAA).

Thus, Kosovar President’s position, Hashim Thaçi, seems to continue to be unfortified, because even if he previously called for the 100% taxes imposition for imported goods from Serbia to be repealed, after the Berlin meeting, he fully endorsed the financial sanctions imposition on Serbia.

"If Serbia continues to act aggressively, we will take additional measures and respond to reciprocity," stated Thaçi, after speaking with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini. The Kosovo official also urged US to participate in the EU-mediated dialogue, stressing that a final agreement with Serbia is far from being done and that "there are no negotiations, dialogues or agreements without US’s participation, EU being too weak and less united to enter the Western Balkans."


There is still hope after Berlin

Kosovo and Serbia have agreed to restart negotiations, at the Berlin meeting, after France and Germany have warned them that solving such dispute is crucial for their future deals with EU.

While Germany and France’s leaders stated they did not expect to solve Serbia and Kosovo’s political conflict, they stressed that it was time for a new dialogue. "We agreed with this joint initiative because we are engaged in the European perspective of Western Balkans countries," and "it is in Europe’s interest to have a positive development in this region," said A. Merkel. European Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, welcomed the Franco-German initiative and interest in the Western Balkans region and underlined that Berlin's main goal is finding a solution to unlock the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue and a sustainable solution should come from Belgrade and Pristina and both part to implement it.

A. Merkel pointed out that solving the Greece-North Macedonia dispute Macedonian state’s name could be a model for the Serbia-Kosovo conflict, stressing that he expressed his agreement "with this joint initiative because we are engaged in determining the perspective European Western Balkans’ countries, "and that "it is in the interest of Europe to have a positive development in this region."

Addressing the media for the third time in just 24 hours since Western Balkan leaders’ Berlin meeting, Thaçi has accused EU of doing nothing about Kosovo’s European perspective. He stated that: "relations’ instability with neighboring countries is caused by Serbia's and BIH's failure to recognize Kosovo's independence." The high- Kosovar official added that "20 years after the end of Kosovo’s 1998-1999 war and 11 years after independence, Serbia has an anti-European attitude, while EU remains silent against Belgrade's attitude towards Kosovo."

Thaçi stressed that "due to Serbia's negative attitude, Kosovo and BIH’s relations are, unfortunately, at the lowest possible level, which was also obvious during the Berlin Summit." He added that he had informed German Chancellor, A. Merkel, and French President, E. Macron, on Pristina's perception: "Kosovo remains Europe’s most isolated country thanks to Europe," adding that during the meeting there was no creative suggestion on solving the Kosovo and Serbia dispute. Thaçi also reaffirmed that there is "no association in the North where Serbia believes it will have executive powers," and that "Serbia wants to create the Serbian Municipalities Community (SMC), with standards such as Republic of Srpska’s one (RS, a Serb-dominated and semi-autonomous entity), but this will not be allowed".

The Kosovar President stated that both Kosovo and Serbia will continue to be multiethnic societies and there will be no ethnic divisions, adding that for a final agreement, which would be impossible without US’s involvement, "it is necessary to recognize interstate borders relations to maintain lasting peace."

However, Thaçi continues to reaffirm his old perspective on ​​border correction, which would include Serbia’s region annexation, Preševo ​​Valley, mostly inhabited by ethnic Albanians, while Kosovo will not even give up a centimeter of its territory.

EU’s Romanian presidency interferes in the Western Balkans situation

Given EU's renewed strategic focus on young people’s role in supporting Western Balkans’s transformation, highlighted and enshrined within the European Commission's Communication "A credible enlargement perspective and an enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans" and the Sofia Summit Declaration (Bulgaria), the EU Council Presidency is committed to promoting a positive agenda for young people, as a long-term investment in the future generation and a contribution to Western Balkans’ progress on their European path.

One can say that Western Balkans’ current challenges, including unemployment and the rise of youth “brain drain”, are real concerns. Hence, despite the fact that Romania does not recognize Kosovo's independence, the Romanian Presidency of the EU Council wishes to address the root causes and contribute, including with national experience, to strengthening young people's confidence in local opportunities throughout the Western Balkans.

Thus, on 28 and 29th of May 2019, the "How to better respond to the European aspirations of the young generation in the Western Balkans" Conference will be organized in Bucharest. This event aims at:
• encouraging and supporting young people from the Western Balkans to join forces in building a future in their own countries;
• explore the "brain drain" phenomenon, especially among young people, and increase their socio-economic integration;

• ease the establishment of a sustainable dialogue between young professionals from Western Balkans and EU’s local government and civil society, entrepreneurs, academics, youth organizations, thus contributing to a better identification and understanding of European values.

This conference is also an excellent opportunity for Romania to share its own experience in promoting youth employment policies and exchange experiences, best practices and successful achievements in areas such as digitization, entrepreneurship, initiation and innovation. The event is supported by the European Commission and the EEA and Norway Grants[2] and it is organized in cooperation with regional and European partners.


An opportunity that shall not be missed

Bojan Klacar, member of Free Elections and Democracy Serbian Center, stressed that the Berlin meeting failed to meet the expectations, but France and Germany’s decision to join the talks and get involved in a meaningful way is a major change for the format for Belgrade and Pristina’s negotiations.  

European leaders tried to bring Serbia and Kosovo back to the negotiating table, within a regional summit, in Berlin, on 29 April 2019, hoping to restart the dialogue on one of Western Balkans’ toughest disputes. Serbia and Kosovo agreed to continue the talks and solve their current conflict, committing to continuing the efforts to implement existing agreements and also playing a "constructive" role in EU-led talks.

Given that Kosovo's independence strengthens the image of an irreversible status, Belgrade may be in an increasingly difficult position in terms of the relationship with Pristina. Belgrade understands this and, moreover, understands that standardizing the relations with Kosovo and harmonizing its foreign policy with EU’s one are key criteria, along with others, that Serbia has to meet for a full European integration.

Despite pessimism and distinct perspective between parties over Serbia-Kosovo’s dispute solution, there is still the idea that this is the best opportunity, on long-tem, to solve the dispute between the two sides. If they lose the chance for a solution now, we can hardly think of another opportunity like that, and if no common understanding is reached, Kosovo's independence recognition will continue to be limited (implicitly receiving UN membership), and last but not least, Serbia's EU membership process will remain blocked. The Serbia and Kosovo solution blockage will only highlight that Belgrade and Pristina leaders will have to take responsibility for the current situation and adopt an optimal decision-making option as soon as possible.  

It seems that European leaders have also understood it, as German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and French President, E. Macron, stressed that the responsibility lies with everyone, and everyone needs to make efforts to continue the Belgrade-Priština dialogue and ensure region’s stability, this process being considered a European issue.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] The Berlin Process, an EU-backed initiative to boost regional cooperation between Western Balkan countries and support their European integration efforts, was launched back in 2014. The next Western Balkans summit following this initiative will take place on 04-05.07.2019, in Poznań, Poland, being the sixth annual summit. The Heads of Government, Foreign Ministers and Economy Ministers from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia will participate too, as well as two EU Member States in the region, Croatia and Slovenia. In addition, other EU Member States, including Austria, France, Germany and Italy, as well as representatives of the European Union and international financial institutions will attend the summit.

[2] EEA and Norway grants are Norway’s, Iceland and Liechtenstein financial contributions in reducing economic and social disparities in European Economics’ Area (EEA) and strengthen bilateral relations with 16 EU and EEA Member States in the North, central and south of  Europe. Through grants, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway also contribute to the consolidation of fundamental European values ​​such as democracy, tolerance and the rule of law.