By Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice-President of the European Commission
The Western Balkans are different from any other region in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood. This is what I realised even before becoming the EU’s High Representative/Vice-President in December 2019.
One of the steps before becoming the EU’s head of foreign policy is a hearing in the European Parliament. During my exchange with the Parliament, special attention was paid to this region surrounded by the EU, and in particular my plans and ideas on the Dialogue on normalisation of relations, which at that point, the EU has been facilitating for almost 10 years. I committed myself on this occasion to conduct my first bilateral visit as HRVP to Kosovo and Serbia – a promise I kept.
As soon as I officially took office as the High Representative for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy and the Vice-President of the European Commission, the Western Balkans naturally became one of the main points of my attention. Every time I meet civil society representatives during my numerous visits to the region, they put one thing clearly to me: the majority of people living in the Balkans do not want to be stuck in the 1990s, constantly confronted with remittent of the past. They want to look forward rather than backwards, to live in democracy, governed by rule of law, in societies that are providing opportunities for all. Wishing to be members of our community of values is not a far-fetched dream, and I support their aspirations as the entire EU leadership does. The Western Balkans are part of Europe. And they are certainly not a chip to be used by Putin in his imperialistic dreams.
However, to open the path towards reaching the objective of joining the EU, Serbia and Kosovo need to normalise relations. There is no way around it. The EU has been doing its part and the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue a central part of my mandate. The Council agreed with my proposal to appoint Ambassador Lajčák as the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues, with the first task to accelerate the process. And this is what we did. In 2020, we held several High Level and Chief Negotiator meetings in Brussels focused on negotiating a comprehensive legally binding agreement on normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo dealing with all outstanding issues.
Nobody ever said a task as monumental as facilitating a normalisation agreement would be easy. There have been ups and downs, and far too often issues considered small and technical proved highly sensitive and political, with the potential of turning violent.
The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine changed the picture. The Dialogue is not only about Kosovo and Serbia. It must be seen in the current broader geopolitical context, a defining moment in the European history.
But instead of advancing on the big picture of normalisation of relations to make Europe safer and provide for a better future for the people of the region, our time and energy was absorbed by crisis management, barricades, and threats of violence with one deadline after another in the second half of 2022. It was not easy to defuse the situation and to avoid a full conflict, but we managed.
This vicious circle of crises on the brink of escalation or even violence had to stop. Therefore, in September 2022, we – supported by the leaders of Germany and France and our American friends – made a bold proposal to President of Serbia Vučić and Prime Minister of Kosovo Kurti. A proposal that would put an end to crisis management and instead shift the attention to normalisation and reconciliation, and that would help the entire region leap forward towards Europe.
During the last High-level meeting between both leaders, which I convened on 27 February this year, they agreed that no further discussions are needed on the European Union’s Proposal on the path to normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, a document endorsed by all 27 EU member states at the European Council meeting in February. This is not a small feat and important step forward. But it is not a done deal yet.
This is why now is the time to focus on the bigger picture and not allow another window of opportunity to close in front of the eyes of the people of the region, as has happened a few times in recent history.
It is now the time for Serbia and Kosovo to agree on the Implementation annex, which is an integral part of the Agreement and share a clear understanding on how to put in place their provisions.
The EU is not a simple note-taker nor is it a party in the Dialogue: we are and remain the facilitator in this Dialogue. The EU is the eventual home for Serbia and Kosovo. I will continue to work tirelessly towards eventually reaching a comprehensive agreement on normalisation of relations that is acceptable to EU member states, is in line with international law and the European acquis, and contributes to regional stability. The agreement on the table is an important step towards that objective.
This is the time for the leaders of Kosovo, Serbia and of the entire Western Balkans to show courage, and to demonstrate shared responsibility for the success of the EU accession process of the region.
“The task of the leader is to get his/her people from where they are to where they have not been”, one of my seasoned colleagues said. The task of the leader is also to deliver the quality-of-life people want, I would add, the quality of life, which the membership in the EU brings.