Kosovo and Serbia Lurch Towards EU Membership

After the prime ministers of Kosovo and Serbia initialed an agreement on April 19 concerning the normalization of their countries’ relations, reactions were highly euphoric. For a moment, it looked like both countries would be granted membership in the European Union (EU) almost overnight.

But just a day after Štefan Füle, the EU’s European Commissioner for Enlargement, announced Kosovo and Serbia will now be granted the next step toward membership, Paris and Berlin put the brakes on, making it clear that only an implementation of the agreement could carry Serbia’s EU application any further.

What are the chances the EU-brokered deal can be turned into concrete results, and will local populations put aside their differences and follow their leaders? Are Serbia and Kosovo ripe for the EU, and does the club want them anyway?

Key Conclusions

  • The recent agreement between Kosovo and Serbia is indeed a breakthrough after a long standstill, but it still dangles on a string, threatened by nationalist resentments on both sides.
  • Any attempt to normalize the situation is doomed to fail as long as the parties don’t realize the need for compromise. In particular, the Serbian communities in North Kosovo need to realize that Kosovo’s self-proclaimed independence will not be reversed, and partition is not an option for the international community.
  • Even though EU hesitance towards new members has grown, the governments of Kosovo and Serbia should still try to catch the momentum before their people become less willing to make concessions to maintain their EU perspective.
  • Upon successful implementation of the new agreement, the work on outstanding issues (like the fight against organized crime and corruption; fostering rule of law and inclusion of minorities; or economic reforms) will require a lot of time and effort, and could warrant a rethinking of the international presence on the ground.


Following a brutal inter-ethnic war between Albanians and Serbs, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1244 on June 10, 1999 that suspended Belgrade’s governance over its former province and established the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK). Later, negotiations to settle Kosovo’s status led by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari failed, and ended with Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008, which has so far been recognized by 99 of 193 UN member states.

The epicenter of tensions is in the northern part of Kosovo and its large ethnic Serb communities. While Serbia does not recognize the self-declared independence of Kosovo, the Serbs living in the north of Kosovo do not recognize Kosovo’s central authorities. On the contrary, they have created their own parallel institutions with support from Serbia. The city of Mitrovica, with its bridge over the Ibar river that links (or divides) the northern (Serbian) part from the southern (Kosovar) part is symbolic and often the scene of violence between the two ethnic groups.

Under these difficult conditions, the deal made between Kosovo’s Hashim Thaci and Serbia’s Ivica Dacic following a long series of negotiation meetings led by Europe’s chief diplomat Lady Catherine Ashton is indeed a breakthrough after the stalemate that has characterized the relations between the two countries over the past five years. Nevertheless, it would be too soon to speak of a “settlement of the issue” or a “final solution” for the conflict.

The agreement is an important step for both countries on their way towards EU accession. Europe’s main demand to both has always been a “normalization of good neighborly relations.” But it will stand or fall based on the implementation plan that has yet to be developed together with the European External Action Service (EEAS), and on how both sides interpret the agreement. Here, the first differences of opinion have already surfaced: while Kosovo’s foreign minister Enver Hoxhaj seemed convinced that Kosovo will now join the UN, since, with this agreement, Serbia implicitly recognized Kosovo’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, the Serbian president’s advisor Marko Ðuric claimed that, on the contrary, Serbia has prevented Kosovo from getting a UN seat by signing the deal in Brussels.

The agreement must also survive the will of the people: Serbia’s premier and vice-premier were allegedly flooded with threats against their lives after having signed the agreement with their Kosovar counterpart; and although the Serbian Parliament already adopted the government’s report on the agreement with 173 against 24 votes, the unbroken resistance of the Kosovo Serbs is making a referendum on the deal likely. But also in Kosovo, nationalists are voicing their discontent.

Even if both governments manage the expectations of their people and settle their differences, there is still a long way to go in terms of economic and legal reforms and an increased fight against corruption and organized crime in both countries. The situation of legal limbo in North Kosovo creates a permissive environment for illicit activity. Trafficking in fuel, weapons, cigarettes, cars, drugs, and people, but also money laundering and ubiquitous corruption are the main criminal activities. Ironically, Serb and Albanian criminal networks have no inter-ethnic issues when doing business together. As a result, little foreign investment reaches this uncompetitive market, while low-quality public services and growing inequality contribute to brain drain as increasingly young and well-educated people leave the country.

And it seems that there is little the proportionally huge international presence1 can do about it: a report issued by the European Court of auditors last October found that the EU “assistance has not been sufficiently effective (…) and levels of organized crime and corruption in Kosovo remain high” despite the fact that “Kosovo is the largest per capita recipient of EU financial aid in the world, and is home to the largest civilian crisis management mission ever launched by the Union (EULEX).”

One of the main reasons is that, in the legal vacuum after the war, before the international community could fully set up its presence, former war actors and local criminals were able to go into business and politics. But despite increasing efforts, organized crime and a lack of rule of law are still a big issue in Serbia. And it is the local mafia strongmen who would have the least to gain and most to loose; the loopholes they are exploiting are the ones that would be closed by integrating Kosovo and Serbia into the framework of European law and order.

Due to the prolonged world economic crisis, the near-bankruptcy of Greece and Cyprus, the struggling economies of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, but also because of cases of malversation and corruption, EU hesitance towards new members has grown. Unlike with Bulgaria and Romania, where political will outweighed technical criteria, Kosovo and Serbia can be sure that “enlargement-fatigue” will make Europe apply stricter standards to their applications. While Croatia will join the club on July 1 this year, 10 years after its application, the EU perspective for Kosovo and Serbia (and other western Balkans states) remains uncertain. Analysts don’t see them join anywhere before 2020.

The new deal also foresees that neither side will block, or encourage others to block, the other side’s progress in their respective EU path; however, the best outcome would be if Kosovo and Serbia joined the EU at the same time. Slovenia’s past attempts at blocking Croatia’s EU bid because of disputes over bank savings and a small bay in the Mediterranean is a good example of why that is important.

On the upside, should the EU perspective be attractive enough to convince Kosovars and Serbs to stick to the agreement and follow the reform path, further negotiations and settlement of issues related to the Kosovo’s status would then be held under the umbrella of the EU-accession negotiations, thus giving the EU more leverage and provide a more stable framework.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso once said that the reunification of Europe would not be complete until all western Balkan nations joined the EU. And maybe once Serbia and Kosovo are reunited under the EU umbrella, their differences will no longer matter. But this is not going to happen without the strong commitment and political will in the governments and populations of both sides.

David Muckenhuber is a consultant based at the International Peace Institute’s office in Vienna.

1 Latest available numbers: Kosovo Force (KFOR): 5.134, European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX): 2.250, United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK): 383, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE): 670 international and national members of staff.

About the photo: The European Union flag. Credit: Yanni Koutsomitis/Flickr