Joe Biden’s election as US President heralds a new beginning, or at least a return to normalcy. His Presidency will be vital to the EU’s role in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, argue Bernard Nikaj and Labinot Hoxha
Dr Bernard Nikaj is a former Ambassador of Kosovo in Brussels; Labinot Hoxha served as a diplomat in Brussels.
We have a President-elect in the United States. Finally. Four long days after election day it became clear that former Vice President Joseph Biden would take Pennsylvania and with that have enough electoral college seats to win the presidency.
A lot of us watched live on CNN the emotional and powerful reaction of news commentator Van Jones saying in tears that it’ll be easier now to tell his kids that the truth matters. Well, Mr Jones, in other parts of the world we are also breathing a sigh of relief.
The Trump administration largely maintained US support for Kosovo and its independence throughout their four years. However, as its term was coming to an end, it became apparent that Kosovo was being used for photo opportunities and quick wins for the president’s domestic political purposes.
His involvement in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia was superficial, equal parts undermining the crucial rule of the EU and ignoring the basic points of disagreement between the two countries.
In keeping with his character, truth didn’t seem to matter to Trump as he claimed in several speeches that he managed to stop Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo from killing each other, as if the 1998-1999 war was still ongoing.
Kosovo was also presented as a Muslim and even Arab state, located in the Middle East with historical contentions with Israel, none of which is true. While Kosovo is Muslim-majority, Kosovars come from all religions and the country is constitutionally a secular state.
Kosovo has never contested Israeli statehood and has actively tried to gain Israel’s recognition since independence in 2008.
Joe Biden heralds a new beginning, or shall we say a return to normalcy. Where truth matters and where issues are tackled at adequate depth. Trump’s notion that every problem between the two countries would diminish if they start to cooperate more economically ignores the core political problem. It is clear that more is required.
The reality is that Serbia will have to recognise the independence of Kosovo at the end of the dialogue, or there will be no deal. Another reality is that both Kosovo and Serbia are in this for the greater promise of EU Integration. Without this incentive, not much is achievable in this process.
Only the European Union can provide a carrot big enough. This is a simple truth that all involved actors need to internalise if the dialogue is to go anywhere.
All EU member states – these days the most powerful of the EU institutions (as Kosovo has experienced in the visa liberalisation dialogue) – must realise that if they want a solution for Kosovo and Serbia, a credible EU accession perspective has to be there.
And the US, the most powerful political influence Kosovo and at least among the strongest in Serbia –– has to internalise this as well. US financial incentives will never be enough.
At the same time, politically the US plays an unrivalled and central role in the Western Balkans. An EU-facilitated solution is difficult to see without absolute and watertight US support.
There can be no room for doubt that the solution offered by the EU and the US is the only one available for both Kosovo and Serbia and that if they don’t take it they will start to fall faster into the abyss of either Russian and Chinese influence in the case of Serbia or near-complete global isolation in the case of Kosovo.
If the enthusiasm of the EU leadership with which the news of Joe Biden’s winning the election was met is anything to go by, we can expect a far closer relationship between the US and the EU starting January 2021.
More importantly, the EU is going to have an administration in place in Washington DC with a favourable attitude towards multilateralism. Joe Biden made it clear that he is far more willing to work with partner countries to tackle critical issues in the world.
Furthermore, Biden’s campaign issued a vision paper on Kosovo and Albania, where it underlined that their candidate intends to work with the EU on the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.
This opportunity for US support of an EU-led resolution to the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue will not last forever.
Ultimately – and quickly – the EU needs to step up to the plate and deliver what is needed: a unified approach of its 27 member states and their willingness to offer an accession-related incentive strong enough for Serbia to finally accept the reality of the indisputable statehood of the Republic of Kosovo.
It is important to remember that the perfect moment of congruent interests will never arrive. Kosovo is facing political instability since a couple of years with frequent government changes, compounded by the on-going pandemic and the recent high-level indictments by the Specialist Chambers in The Hague for former leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Elsewhere in Europe, upcoming elections in France and Germany may be seen as reasons to delay.
However, there will never be a moment when national elections are not nearing in either EU member states, Kosovo or Serbia. If anything, the continued impasse in the dialogue is at least partly responsible for the continued political instability in Kosovo.
Biden’s election should therefore be used to bring EU member states together to present a clear choice for both Kosovo and Serbia: a prosperous and joint future within the EU or a continuation of resentment and hostility.