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The EU and the Western Balkans: the case of Serbia and Kosovo

Updated: Apr 17

The EU-Western Balkans summit on 13 December set out the prospects for EU membership for these two countries, reflecting decades of often conflictual development. As such, these accessions occur in a particular context, that of the history between Serbia and Kosovo, and are not exempt from issues and challenges.

by Maddalena Magnante and Enzo Colomer

sommet balkans

© Euronews et AFP

"The future of the Western Balkans lies within our Union"

This is the background to the conclusion of the EU-Western Balkans summit on 13 December. Bringing together the leaders of both parties, the summit aimed to affirm the prospect of EU membership for the Western Balkans, and to bring them closer to the Union.

It was emphasised that the Western Balkan partners will be brought closer to the EU through gradual integration, based on cooperation in economic matters, as well as security, cyber-security and defence. Following Russia's aggression in Ukraine, the EU is all the more encouraging its partners' strategic alignment with the CFSP, the Common Foreign and Security Policy. All the Western Balkan partners are involved in the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP), launched by the EU in 2000. Accession negotiations are currently underway with Montenegro and Serbia, and in March 2020 it was agreed to open negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidates for membership.

"What we are seeing is a step away from the past and, for each of them, a step closer to Europe"

In the context of the EU-Western Balkans partnership, the cases of Serbia and Kosovo stand out. The Brussels Declaration, the outcome of the 13 December summit, expresses a desire to support and develop dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, and encourages both parties to ease existing tensions. The history of Serbia and Kosovo goes back several decades, and has long been one of conflict and, at times, bloodshed. In 1999, in the twilight of the Yugoslav war, Serbia lost control of its southern province of Kosovo-Metohija following a NATO intervention. And in 1999, at the end of the Kosovo war, the United Nations Security Council placed Kosovo under its provisional administration. Political, diplomatic and ethnic tensions continued to flourish. In 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence, becoming a sovereign state in its own right. This led to years of tension, with Serbia refusing any official dialogue with Kosovar representatives, recalling Serbian ambassadors and charging Kosovar leaders with high treason. Other events punctuated the early 2010s, including that of Mayor Vitina, until the gradual development of a period of dialogue and attempts at appeasement. Under the impetus of the European Union, normalisation negotiations opened in October 2012 between Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić and Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi. This step was a necessary condition for the continuation of Serbia's European candidacy. Multi-sector agreements were developed, and a border agreement was put in place in December 2012. In April 2013, the two governments concluded an agreement - ratified in June and supplemented in August by an agreement on permanent border crossings - enabling the two countries to become members of the European Union. With this agreement, Serbia de facto relinquished its sovereignty over Pristina in exchange for the opening of these accession negotiations. At the same time, the Kosovar struggle on the international stage continued, with the aim of gaining recognition of its independence and legitimacy in the face of many countries still reluctant to make such a claim. However, recent years have witnessed a return of conflictual episodes, such as the Kosovar complaint to the International Court of Justice for genocide against Serbia during the 1998-1999 war, as well as the ethnic tensions in August 2022. And even today, Serbia does not recognise the independence of the Republic of Kosovo.

Serbia applied for EU membership on 19 December 2009, and was granted candidate country status on 1 March 2012. Accession negotiations began on 21 January 2014, followed by thirteen meetings to date. The last conference, held on 14 December 2021, assessed the progress of the revised enlargement methodology, approved by the Council in 2021 and designed to boost the accession process. The revised methodology enshrines a new approach aimed at making the accession process more efficient, transparent and rigorous, while focusing on strengthening democracy and the rule of law in the countries applying to join the EU. This approach can be broken down as follows: coherence and credibility of the enlargement process, i.e. clarification of the expectations, criteria and stages of the accession process; strengthening the rule of law and democratic governance, in particular by paying greater attention to the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption; or an approach based on thematic chapters, concentrating efforts on specific areas such as 'good governance', the market economy, competitiveness or justice.

Kosovo, which falls within the scope of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244, is a potential candidate for EU membership. Although its independence has been recognised by 22 of the 27 Member States, this does not prevent the EU from providing almost unfailing support: the EU supports Kosovo's stability through the establishment of the European Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) and the presence of a civilian mission as part of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). EULEX EDD, deployed by the European Union to strengthen the rule of law, focuses on key areas such as border and customs management, and the fight against organised crime. This framework of support towards Western standards and norms includes the provision of strategic and operational advice to the Kosovar government, in order to strengthen its legal and governance capacities. By working closely with the local authorities, the ESD aims to improve security and stability in the region by supporting the development of effective and accountable institutions, ready for eventual integration into the EU.

In a word, the European Union's relationship with the Western Balkans is characterised by a certain dynamism, and a plural face. Although remarkable progress has been made in terms of economic development and regional cooperation, substantial challenges remain regarding to the rule of law, as well as the persistence of major ethnic tensions. As such, this integration still faces many challenges and issues. While the EU remains determined to establish an even closer partnership with the region, in order to make the prospect of European integration a tangible reality, these developments are unlikely to come to an end any time soon.



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