The Western Balkans[i] as a region has been a policy testing ground for the European Union’s diplomacy and security-making in its backyard, positioning the EU as a credible security and stability provider on the continent. In particular, the conflict over Kosovo ranks high in the EU’s endeavor to promote peace and democracy in its neighborhood, the EU’s efforts meeting indecisive reactions at best concerning the struggles to substantially develop Kosovo’s political and economic sectors. With the launch of its biggest civilian mission in February 2008, the EULEX Kosovo[ii], under the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and its extended mandate until the 14th of June 2014, the EU envisioned to validate its political unity and capacity to act credibly as a security and rule of law promoter. The European Union Office in Kosovo has also played a pivotal role in advancing the EU’s foreign policy and security agenda, with “the aim to promote Kosovo’s approximation to the European Union”[iii]. However, disgruntled reports labelled the EU’s overwhelming resource investment in Kosovo as inefficient[iv], the EULEX’s activity remaining doubtful in terms of affecting the level of corruption and organised crime within local institutional structures. In November 2012, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) issued a negative evaluation report[v] concerning the discrepancy between the extensive financial resources invested in Kosovo and the low returns with organised crime and rule of law improvements. The report further emphasised the embedded inefficiency in EULEX and the poor professional qualification of its staff, two important elements affecting the success of the EULEX’s rule of law watch-dog-role in Kosovo.
The year 2013 marked the positive conclusion of the long-run and grueling dialogue between the Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić and the Kosovo, Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi, who reached a milestone agreement on April 19 over the normalisation of relations between Serbia and its former province. Analysts have labelled the EU’s effort to stabilise the Kosovo-Serbian relations as “constructive ambiguity” (Henry Kissinger), referring to the EU’s short-term policy[vi] and the deliberate use of ambiguous language concerning sensitive topics to further the European strategic interest. Also, high skepticism was shown by EU member states leaders concerning the success of talks at their start back in 2011. Nevertheless, under the patronage of the EU and taking the lead from the EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton, who successfully chaired the tense negotiations, a historic step forward was made in brokering an accord between the opposing parties with the signing of the Brussels Agreement[vii]. After the completion of the talks, the European Commission formally recommended the beginning of the EU accession negotiations with Serbia and the negotiation of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) between the EU and Kosovo[viii].
The EU-facilitated accord comes across as a major accomplishment for EU diplomacy and the European External Action Service (EEAS), paving the way for Serbia’s future accession to the European Union and laying the grounds for the de facto recognition of Kosovo by the Serbian state. Since proclaiming its independence in 2008, Kosovo has become one of the newest nations in the world and a taxing diplomatic test-case for the EU in terms of the country’s endemic developmental problems. Categorised by the World Bank as a fragile state, ethnically fractured and facing dire economic challenges, Kosovo has required a widespread and concerted state-building effort from the European Union and the international community in the last decade. The European Union’s tutelage was extended to the development of security and administrative structures, extensive efforts being made as regards to political corruption, organised crime, extreme ethnic schisms, institutional authority, and state legitimacy.
Notwithstanding the clear political and institutional advancements being made with the help of the EU, the Kosovo case has elicited critical voices speaking against the very nature of the relations of domination emerging in state-building processes. The EU’s relations of domination, since Kosovo’s separation and independence, have been characterised by sometimes opaque, top-down, and technocratic policies, lacking political substance or any regard to the grassroots reality. Such EU state-building practices proceeded with the penetrating transfer of so called vague “best practices” of state and institutional building for the purpose of security and stability promotion, the end-goal being the “approximation” of Kosovo to EU democratic standards. Yet, such state-building practices may run the risks to resemble the Titoist federal administrative solution – the ethnic conflict in Kosovo under Tito’s rule was addressed through constitutions, laws and policy, all administrative measures, which tend to neglect all-together the cultural-laden characteristics of the Kosovar ethnic-political groups. The Kosovar state-building conundrum comes as a reminder that effective efforts need to be context-based, “local ownership” playing a fundamental role for the success of law and justice reform and security sector development. Sixteen years on, the memory of the wartime crimes still lingers in the Kosovar public imaginary, fuelling continued ethnic tensions and political rift, the EULEX’s inefficiency to prioritize the indictment of war criminals only contributing to the overwrought status-quo. The true testing ground for the Brussels Agreement’s future success remains the Northern Serbian enclave of Kosovo, where an overwhelming Serb population has repeatedly refused in the past to acknowledge the Kosovar authority.
January 21st 2014 marked a further step in the normalisation process supported by Brussels between Pristina and Belgrade, the promise of future EU membership for Serbia playing a fundamental role in consolidating the agreement and placating anti-Kosovar voices with the promise of economic prosperity and the eventual EU accession. Serbia officially started its accession talks with the EU last month, its relations and procedural rules[ix] concerning Kosovo’s independence remaining an outstanding topic and conditioning its future EU membership. The last Chapter 35 in the accession packaged is reserved for “other issues” and, in the case of Serbia, it heavily relies on the landmark deal reached between Belgrade and Pristina on the 19th of April 2013. Chapter 35 is dedicated to the stabilisation of relations between the two opposing parties and it will take priority in Serbia’s accession talks. Michael Davenport, the head of the EU Delegation to Serbia, wrote the following words in the preface of the “35 steps to the EU” brochure[x] published on January 21st, “A stable, modern, democratic and prosperous Serbia in the European Union is the goal which should unite us all. There is a lot of work ahead of us”.
But what about the work that remains to be done in Kosovo and how Serbia’s EU accession talks could affect Kosovo’s independence recognition? The EU accession framework seems to favor more the promotion of enduring and stabilised ties between Serbia and its former province rather than pushing for Serbia to explicitly recognise Kosovo’s independence status. Confusion still reigns in the matter of Kosovo’s statehood, the particular wording of the formal conditions in the Serbian-EU negotiations being a clear instance of the EU’s “constructive ambiguity” diplomatic tactic – there is hope that the “normalisation” processes will eventually lead to Kosovo’s statehood recognition[xi] and its future EU membership. The normative project the EU is spreading in its near neighbourhood is essentially transformative in its nature because of the coveted promise of membership. However, the current diplomatic goal of the EU in the case of Kosovo is not one of promising membership in a “better community” (at least not yet), but a slow process of state-building and sovereignty recognition, especially by the five sceptic EU members states (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain). Kosovo remains the only potential candidate for memberships in the Balkans without visa free access in the Schengen Area and negotiations of EU membership will only begin once the country achieves an official candidacy status. It remains to be seen whether the EU is still able to induce painful democratic transformations in Kosovo with only the “potential” EU candidacy promise, now that Serbia has begun its official EU membership negotiations.