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Somewhere in the middle: Kosovo's delicate relations with the European Union
Kosovo lags behind in respect to the European Union (EU) integration process compared to other Western Balkans countries.
In general, Kosovo’s challenges in regard to its EU perspective could be categorised in three main domains: domestic, namely pervasive challenges in establishing a strong economy that provides jobs to young people and is capable of competing in EU market; external, more specifically relations with Serbia and lack of recognition from 5 EU member states (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain); and thirdly, EU’s internal political developments, in turn its inability to implement a consistent and cohesive policy towards Kosovo, which has been demonstrated in the case of the visa liberalization. Currently Kosovo is the only country in the region which is yet to submit the application for membership and is considered only a potential candidate for membership by the EU.
On the other hand, the EU has been pursuing a rather limited approach towards Kosovo because of the 5 EU member states which still do not recognize Kosovo. Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 created a novel situation for the EU, which has been compelled to discover an innovative and delicate approach, in order to accommodate both the stance of the majority of its members and 5 non-recognizers in its relations with Kosovo. In general, this has been one of the key factors in impacting and shaping both the Kosovo-EU ties and Kosovo’s EU perspective thus far.
The Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) as a milestone
In 2016 Kosovo entered contractual relations with the EU by signing the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). Kosovo’s SAA differs in comparison to the SAA’s signed with other countries, given that it is an EU-Only agreement, an arrangement that was made possible with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in 2009. The agreement also states that: “[i]n case of the non-compliance by Kosovo with these commitments, the EU may take measures it deems appropriate, including suspending all or part of this Agreement”, which points to the level of asymmetry between the signatory parties of the document. Nonetheless, the SAA presented an important achievement in Kosovo’s relations with the EU as the first contractual agreement; it was celebrated as a key milestone by the leaders of the institutions and most importantly it was hailed as a ‘confirmation of Kosovo’s EU perspective.’
In order to streamline the implementation of the SAA, in 2016 Kosovo and EU agreed on the European Reform Agenda (ERA). The ERA document was based on key priorities to be implemented by the Kosovo institutions, which were divided into three pillars: employment and education, good governance and rule of law and competitiveness and investment climate. The implementation of the ERA agreement was initially planned to be completed by the end of 2017, however slow implementation by Kosovo institutions postponed the date. It is also noteworthy that in May of 2017 Kosovo Assembly voted a motion of no confidence for the government, which also affected the implementation process.
The ERA II was agreed in late 2020 and should be implemented for a two-year period 2020-2022, under the following pillars: good governance and rule of law, competitiveness, investment and sustainable development, employment, education and health. A key difference compared to ERA I, is that the ERA II has not been framed as a High Level Political Dialogue on Key Priorities between Kosovo and the EU.
On the whole, these documents have allowed Kosovo to implement institutional reforms and harmonise parts of the legislation with the Acquis Communautaire, although political instability, lack of consensus and frequent national elections -in February Kosovars will head to ballots for the third time since 2017- have seriously hampered and slowed this process. Despite this, the EU has managed to become a key transformative force in Kosovo, both because of the conditionality in the accession process and the fact that it remains the biggest financial donor.
Political Dialogue and EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia
On the other hand, some other areas of cooperation, such as political dialogue, have been overshadowed to a great extent. The communication of the EU with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora (MFAD) of Kosovo is almost non-existent in practice. This is because of the political challenges it poses for the EU, in light of the stance of the 5 non-recognising countries towards Kosovo’s independence and Article 2 of the SAA, which states that the terms of the Agreement do not imply recognition of Kosovo’s independence by the EU, nor by individual Member States, where they have not taken such a step.
In contrast, the SAA offers a unique platform for developing political dialogue between Kosovo and the EU. According to Article 11.2 of the SAA, the EU and Kosovo have agreed to cooperate towards congruence in the fields of foreign policy and security affairs, which should even allow the EU to assist “Kosovo’s participation in the international democratic community, should objective circumstances so permit”. However, this provision has not been utilised thus far, mainly because there has been no initiative from the EU side to push forward.
In the recent years Kosovo’s communication with the EU has also been heavily dominated by the EU-facilitated dialogue between Prishtina (Kosovo) and Belgrade (Serbia). The process recommenced in 2020 and several meetings have been held under the mediation of EU Special Representative Lajčak. The European Commission EU Enlargement Strategy in 2018 has also fostered the nexus between a legally binding agreement between Kosovo and Serbia and the accession of both countries in the EU.
Despite this, since it started in 2011, the dialogue process has proved to be far from an easy diplomatic endeavour for the union. One of the key challenges derives from the stark differences and expectations in Kosovo and Serbia on the dialogue’s outcome. While for Kosovo the end-goal of the dialogue is mutual recognition, this view is not shared by the Serbian institutions. On the other hand, in order to balance the positions of both countries the EU has attempted to walk on a thin line by applying constructive ambiguity in the texts of the agreements, including on vital documents which focus on Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo, signed in 2013 and 2015.
Moreover, despite the fact that there has been progress, the overall implementation of the agreements reached in dialogue since 2011 is not satisfactory, as around 20% of the agreements have been mostly or partly implemented, while around 20% have not been implemented at all. In 2018 following lack of substantial progress and alleged discussions for exchange of territories, the EU-led dialogue process practically hit a dead end and the meetings were halted altogether, imposing a major blow to the process. In this vein, while the dialogue process has become an important topic in regard to Kosovo’s communication with the EU, it can also be noted that, due to its complexity, the process has also provided serious challenges for the EU and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
EU’s enlargement policy in disarray
In general, it is noteworthy that since 2016 when the SAA entered into force, no significant steps have been registered in Kosovo's European integration process. Kosovo is the only country in the Western Balkans that has not been granted visa liberalisation by the EU and the Kosovar citizens continue to remain isolated. Although the European Commission has recommended visa liberalization in 2016 and 2018, and confirmed that all benchmarks from the Roadmap have been met, the long-awaited positive decision is yet to get the green light from the EU Council. Some EU member states have opposed a positive decision on the grounds that Kosovo’s progress on rule of law and war against corruption remains insufficient. In contrast, a recent study shows that around 64% of the citizens believe that the key reasons are prejudices and discrimination from EU member states.
There was increased hope in Kosovo that this process would be pushed forward during the German Presidency of the Council which has recently finished, but to no avail, as the decision has been postponed again. For many in Kosovo the delays in the visa liberalisation decision highlight the lack of EU mechanisms to overcome the obstacles caused by the stance of individual member states, thereby the lack of progress stems primarily from EU’s limited capacity to implement a cohesive enlargement policy in the region. To overcome these obstacles which are deriving from the stance of individual member states, the EU needs to showcase a robust approach in its enlargement policy, as such preventing the politicisation of technical aspects.
On the whole, it goes without saying that the countries of the region, including Kosovo, must implement overarching institutional and legislative reforms across a wide range of fields. These reforms are mandatory in order to build stable democratic structures and enhance the performance of the institutions, which would enable them to improve the living standard of the citizens and join the EU.
Yet, seen in the grand scheme of things the lack of decision of the visa liberalization for Kosovo displays rather similar features to the French non-paper on enlargement policy in 2019, the postponement of opening negotiations with North Macedonia even after signing the Prespa Agreement and the recent veto from Bulgaria for North Macedonia. These developments might also signal that the enlargement policy is running under its own steam and if the interest of individual member countries is allowed to shape its decisions, the EU accession for the Western Balkans will remain distant.
Overall, the attitude of the Kosovo citizens towards the EU continues to remain very positive. In a recent survey, around 35% of the citizens, somewhat unrealistically, believe that Kosovo will become an EU member by 2025, while around 9% answered that they believe that Kosovo will never manage to become an EU member. One may wonder how these figures will change in case Kosovo citizens continue to witness no progress on visa liberalization and EU accession in the following years, moreover what consequences this would produce for the EU as a reformatory force for Kosovo institutions. From a wider perspective, it is also evident that the lethargic enlargement approach of the EU in the Western Balkans region could pose negative implications for its credibility and geopolitical role in the region as a whole.
This blog is published as part of the regional blogging initiative “Tales from the Region”, led by Res Publica and the Institute of Communication Studies, in partnership with Macropolis (Greece), IDM (Albania), Lupiga (Croatia), Sbunker (Kosovo), Ne Davimo Beograd (Serbia), Analiziraj (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Pcnen (Montenegro), and HAD (Slovenia).
*Butrint Berisha is a Researcher at Prishtina Institute for Political Studies (PIPS) and a Regular Contributor at Sbunker. He earned his MSc degree from Stockholm University in Political Science, and also studied at University of Strathclyde, in United Kingdom. His main research interests include the EU enlargement policy vis-à-vis Western Balkans, state-recognition, regional relations etc.