Serbia-Kosovo deal clears path to EU accession, but long road remains

The agreement to 'normalize' relations between Serbia and Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia five years ago, removes a major obstacle to each one's bid to join the EU.

Marko Drobnjakovic/AP
Members of the Serbian government attend a session in Belgrade, Serbia, on Monday. The Serbian government approved a potentially landmark agreement to normalize relations with breakaway Kosovo that could end years of tensions and put the Balkan rivals on a path to European Union membership.

This week’s breakthrough deal between Serbia and the disputed territory of Kosovo moves both closer to European Union membership and a conclusion to one of Europe’s last frozen conflicts. But progress toward EU accession is still fraught with difficulty, as Europe continues to struggle with its economic crisis.

On Monday, the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, recommended that Brussels start formal negotiations on Serbian accession, after the Serbian government agreed to sign a draft agreement “normalizing” relations with Kosovo, which it still refuses to recognize.

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008, nine years after a NATO bombing campaign led to Serbian withdrawal from most of the territory, which the majority of Serbs see as part of their country. The deal allows the ethnic-Albanian-dominated government in Pristina to control all of Kosovo, including the predominantly Serbian north.

“This is not recognition, but it is a big step towards it,” says James Ker-Lindsay, senior research fellow on South East European politics at the London School of Economics. “You can take the view that the agreement still allows Serbia to maintain the fiction that Kosovo is a province of Serbia, just ruled from Pristina. But eventual acceptance of Kosovo is where Serbia is going with all this.”

'A big step'

The deal came after months of on-and-off negotiations brokered by the EU. Belgrade agreed to sign after Kosovo made concessions on policing of the north, and on a clause which now states that the two countries must not try to block each other’s EU accession process. The revised wording – which previously referred to membership of any international institutions – allows Serbia to continue its opposition to Kosovo joining the United Nations, a related but separate diplomatic battle that had been a sticking point in the EU talks.

Pristina’s reward for this – other than the de facto recognition of its sovereignty over the whole territory – will be a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU, considered the first step toward membership.

For Serbia, the prospect of EU talks has particular political, diplomatic, and economic significance. It indicates that the country, considered an international pariah less than 15 years ago, is increasingly being accepted back into the international mainstream.

The fact that the Kosovo deal was signed by a coalition of nationalists and socialists that was decried last year for its far-right past and links to late strongman Ppresident Slobodan Milosevic has a Nixon-to-China element to it; an EU deal may boost the government’s standing further before possible snap elections in the autumn.

And for the beleaguered Serbian economy, which reentered recession last year, concrete steps toward joining the EU should provide a boost in terms of greater stability, impetus for reform, and future funding.

A long way to go

However, accession is far from an easy process, or a short one. Serbia is not likely to join before the next decade, after painstaking economic, judicial, and administrative restructuring. Serbia’s unhappy recent past – and the EU's experience of integrating Romania and Bulgaria – mean that Brussels is likely to be particularly stringent in ensuring that the country meets its standards.

As Dr. Ker-Lindsay points out, it is not even certain that negotiations will start anytime soon.

“There is a real possibility that Germany or other countries will say that this is still not good enough, which would have a very harmful effect and lead to a sense of betrayal in Serbia,” he says.

With the EU faced with record levels of skepticism among its own citizens, and its economies struggling to recover from prolonged crisis, Serbian accession may not seem a priority; it is hardly a vote-winner with EU electorates. And it remains to be seen what sort of EU Serbia would be joining – in a decade’s time it could be a rather different organization.

But for all the necessary caveats, this week’s agreement could prove a landmark in resolving conflicts in a troubled region.

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