Serbia’s proof that the EU works

After ten rounds of negotiations and near failure, Serbia and Kosovo have agreed 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 19, 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.

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 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.

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.

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 “to join the European Union but never forget that … the Russian people are our greatest friends.”

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.

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.

* Read the whole articleon Serbia‘s accord here.

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