This year has been full of surprises for the Western Balkans. While the U.S. is showing increased enthusiasm for the region, the E.U. has started to lose interest. This puts into question the possibility of reaching a much-needed final peace deal between Kosovo and Serbia.
Just last month, France vetoed E.U. accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. For Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, whose country received the E.U. candidate status in 2012, the move signaled to the entire region that there is no path to membership in the foreseeable future. However, without a perspective of joining the E.U., there is simply no inclination for Kosovo and Serbia to work toward a peace agreement. Such an accord is vital for the region’s stability.
The E.U. must seize on Washington’s increased engagement and push for a final and comprehensive deal between Kosovo and Serbia. Only a coordinated U.S.-E.U. approach can serve as a catalyst and produce the needed synergy to finalize an agreement.
Washington’s Revived Interest
President Donald Trump made a surprising move last December by sending personal letters to the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia, urging them to reach a compromise and offering a joint White House visit.
Moreover, the U.S. State Department has appointed Matthew Palmer as a Balkans Envoy, and Trump has appointed Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, as special presidential representative focusing solely on Kosovo and Serbia. This is noteworthy considering the U.S. has not employed a special envoy to the Balkans since 1999.
New: Trump appoints current US envoy to Germany Ric Grenell for 2nd role as Special Envoy for Serbia + Kosovo Peace Negotiations—unusual dual hat.
Trump admin making push for greater US role in Balkans—career diplomat Matthew Palmer named special envoy for Western Balkans in Aug. pic.twitter.com/W9otVQqnB2
— Conor Finnegan (@cjf39) October 4, 2019
The appointments signal a resurgence of interest and represent a new era for American involvement in the Western Balkans, an essential geostrategic location for the West. Kosovo is home to Camp Bondsteel, the biggest U.S. military base in Southeast Europe. NATO has announced that it will build an airbase in Albania worth over $58 million, and North Macedonia is expected to become the alliance’s newest member.
During Palmer’s visit to Kosovo earlier this month, he stated that reaching a final agreement between Kosovo and Serbia is of immense importance to Washington, defining it as a key strategic priority. Although Palmer did mention a time frame, his pressing demands to turn to the negotiating table indicates that the U.S. is looking at this dispute with a sense of urgency.
The appointment of Palmer and Grenell comes at a time when E.U. institutions have new leadership in place, including the newly appointed E.U. foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, who will be leading the E.U.-facilitated Kosovo-Serbia mediation talks. The E.U. indicated the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue as one of Borrell’s top priorities.
However, despite political rhetoric, Brussels seems uninterested in taking matters seriously in its own backyard. French President Emmanuel Macron’s non to opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia has given the E.U. integration process a sense of elusiveness. Germany and France’s dissonance on major foreign policy issues has weakened the E.U.’s position in the Western Balkans.
This creates serious complications towards reaching a final comprehensive agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. It also puts the newly appointed foreign policy chief in a complicated situation when dealing with the dispute.
The lacking hope in reaching a final peace agreement opens the path for other actors to get involved. While Serbia aims for E.U. integration, it maintains close relations with other nations, mainly Russia, China, and Turkey. If Brussels does not work to make integration an option, Serbia will resort to strengthening its other relations and will have no strong incentive for normalizing ties with Kosovo.
This causes a major problem for Kosovo because it has no other viable option than the West. The transformation of Kosovo as a full member of the international community is highly dependent on the West because Russia and China do not recognize its independence. The delay of a final deal with Serbia could push Kosovo into a state of limbo.
Limited Window of Opportunity?
The E.U. has until now proved incapable of solving the Gordian knot of the Balkans, the Kosovo-Serbia dispute. The E.U. has not even managed to bring Kosovo and Serbia to the negotiating table since November 2018.
Experience shows that American focus on small regions such as the Balkans is usually short-lived. The E.U. must seize the opportunity of increased U.S. engagement in the Kosovo-Serbia issue and push for a final deal. Only U.S.-E.U. cooperation can break the deadlock. If Brussels does not change course, this will be a terrible lost opportunity.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.