After ten rounds of negotiations and near failure, Serbia and Kosovo have agreed on a pact that opens up the path for Serbia's languishing EU accession. The constellation of events that led to the announcement of the pact on April 19th, including discussions with Russia, has brought this historic agreement about. Yet, while the ground has been laid for Serbia, it is only the first of many steps on the path towards EU membership.
The clear political stumbling block between Serbia and the European Union is the recognition of Kosovo's sovereignty. Having accepted changes in the governing of northern Kosovo, most notably giving the “Association/Community” “full overview of the areas of economic development, education, health, urban and rural planning”, Serbia is not close to making a full recognition.
A historical agreement with limitations
The signing of a 15 point agreement between Serbia and Kosovo constitutes a major success for High Representative Catherine Ashton, both for the stability in the Balkans region and unlocking the potential for Serbia and Kosovo's entry into the EU. The two parties, torn apart by Kosovo's war of independence in 2008, have reached an accord that recognises Kosovo's right to be governed by local independent statue, whilst giving Serbs in northern Kosovo their own police force and appeals court. However, far from being the end of the story, the agreement has created the space for normalisation to emerge, rather than sealed the relations between the two states.
Focusing on the outward looking articles of the agreement, rather than the internal arrangements it is clear that Serbia has moved little on recognising Kosovo. Despite Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi's assertion that the new agreement means that “Serbia has recognized the full sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo”, the stipulations in fact give limited control over the police force and judiciary to Kosovans of Serbian ethncity in the four northern Serb majority municipalities, in a compromise with Serbian concerns. The message from Ivica Dačić was far more conservative, maintaining that Kosovo was not recognised as independent from Serbia, and even worse, that: “My signature doesn't mean … that we accepted this document.” He will now take the 15 points to Serbia's national parliament, where it will face fierce opposition from nationalist parties.
The removal of the acceptance of Kosovo's right to enter international organisations, implicitly referring to their bid for a seat at the UN, from the final version, reinforces the point that this key aspect of talks between the EU and Serbia has not yet been resolved.
Emerging situations rather than palpable change
Rather than a palpable change in relations between Kosovo and Serbia, the circumstances that led to Serbia's agreement lay more with Prime Minister Dačić's state delegation to Moscow nine days earlier. Russia’s ongoing support for Serbia in the region has kept the Balkan country comfortable on the periphery of the EU. However, less than a week after the final round of talks had appeared to lead to failure, there were signals that Russia was becoming impatient for progress. Serbia needed to balance its budget deficit this April, and after making a state visit to Moscow only secured a 500-million-dollar loan from Russia at an interest rate of 3.5 per cent, about half of what it had requested. Russia also linked the disbursement of the final 200 million dollars to Serbia's ongoing discussions with the IMF.
More significantly, Moscow's rhetoric seemed to drive the Serbs back to the negotiating table after the failure of the latest round of negotiations. Couched in terms that reiterated Russia's support for their allies, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made clear that on Kosovo, “the process needs to be fostered by Serbia, not us”. Russia's reticence has ensured that the EU's lead on the issue is the only path to resolving the dispute, and in that, the only path for Serbia's EU membership. Little heed was taken to Serbia's request to re-enter negotiations within a UN framework, and as such they were left with little choice than to conform.
The emerging fear of isolation within the region has shifted Serbia's focus back onto the necessity of EU accession and helped create the necessary greater space for compromise. Prime Minister Dačić neatly summed up Serbia's situation as an aspiration “to join the European Union but never forget that … the Russian people are our greatest friends.” Securing a date for EU talks is a necessary step to ensuring that Serbia slowly creeps towards accession, but it does not signify that Serbian politicians are any closer to taking the leap and recognising Kosovan independence, and this will likely remain the final step.
Serbia and the EU
Whilst never formally a condition of entry to the EU, recognition of Kosovo remains the largest hurdle to Serbia's entry. Twenty-two out of the twenty-seven states recognise Kosovo as a state, one with the potential to join the EU, as suggested by their re-opening of negotiations. Whilst Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus have yet to recognise the new government, the weight of pressure falls heavily on Serbia. It is, in particular, a key line for Germany to consider Serbia's application.
This agreement opens up hope that bilateral negotiations between the EU and Kosovo/Serbia may have been given the necessary and significant space. In particular, point 14 of the agreement “that neither side will block, or encourage others to block, the other side's progress in their respective EU path”, sets the ground for shaking off the intractable nature that has dogged these negotiations. But while the agreement enables changing relationships with the EU, it does not in itself set the necessary preconditions for future accession because at the end of the road and at the crux of the matter remains the question of Kosovo's statehood.
This was an historic step for Serb-Kosovo relations, but in the wider terms of the EU accession debate, the agreement stands as a prelude to the difficult road ahead. It sets the right tone and lays the grounds for negotiations, but it does not secure Serbia's place within the EU. This will largely hang on Serbia's continued work to conform to predominant EU expectations in the Balkans; namely the recognition of Kosovo. It is Ashton's belief that improving the “day-to-day relations” between the two will lead to those “very narrow but deep” divisions converging. Whether this is indeed possible and how long it takes still remains to be seen.
This text is published as part of an ongoing cross-publication partnership with Europe & Me magazine.
Mathew Shearman is a London based politics editor of the transnational life magazine Europe and Me. For more, follow him at @shearmanm