Reaching a deal for the full normalisation of the relations between Belgrade and Pristina is of crucial importance also for the EU, although time is running out, writes Bekim Çollaku.
Bekim Çollaku is currently serving as President Hashim Thaçi’s Chief of Staff, a position he assumed on September 2016. A political scientist by background, he has served as a Minister for European Integration in the Government of the Republic of Kosovo (2014-2016) and Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi during two terms (2008-2014).
After six years, Kosovo and Serbia are entering the final phase in the EU-facilitated dialogue. The two parties have come a long way since the dialogue began, and the end is starting to feel near. Direct channels of communication are open, limiting unnecessary escalation of tensions – something that would have been unimaginable before 2011 – and the prospect of full recognition grows day by day. As well as solving a longstanding conflict sbetween two European nations, it will have significant benefits for the economies of the region.
It hasn’t been an easy journey for any of the parties involved. As with many interstate dialogues, it has too often felt like our many steps forward were followed by a few backwards. Recent renewed commitments by the European Union to our region, from Jean-Claude Juncker’s 2017 State of the Union to the Western Balkans Summit in London just last month, have kept a much-needed spotlight on our – both Kosovo’s and Serbia’ – potential success; and, through it, the liberation of our respective peoples’ ambitions and futures.
And now that we are reaching the final hurdles of this dialogue, it is vital we all keep our efforts focused, for it is clear that the current limbo serves the interests of no one – not the citizens of Kosovo, or of Serbia, or, indeed, of our wider allies in the European Union.
The EU’s assistance came at a much needed time. Their involvement followed previous attempts to reach an agreement between our two countries, in 1999 and in 2007, during which settlement plans were, unfortunately, rejected by Serbia.
A fresh approach was initiated by the EU, characterised by a focus on smaller issues, such as the inclusion of Kosovo in various regional meetings and the progress towards securing freedom of movement between the two countries. This meant that we could obtain smaller wins before tackling the big one – full normalisation of the relations between the two states.
This approach has also proved successful in many more ways. Progress in the dialogue contributed to the conclusion of the EU-Kosovo Stabilisation and Association Agreement, which entered into force in April 2016. And for Serbia, it allowed the opening of accession negotiations in June 2013. Most recently, on July 18th, the Commission confirmed that Kosovo met the two outstanding visa liberalisation requirements: the ratification of the border demarcation agreement with Montenegro and a strengthened track record in the fight against crime and corruption.
As a result, EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, has called on the European Parliament and the European Council to swiftly adopt the proposal on lifting visa requirements for Kosovo citizens. He was right to call it “an important moment for Kosovo, for the entire Western Balkan region, and for Europe as a whole.”
We have seen, from a distance, what a force for good a strong partnership with Europe is, and visa liberalisation will bring our nation one step closer to our European family. As well as redressing the previously unequal situation of Kosovo as compared with its neighbours, visa liberalisation brings substantial economic benefits, facilitating the free movement of goods and people, and increasing connections between Kosovo and its European neighbours.
All these steps and diplomatic successes prove that we are ready to leave the past behind and to replace regional divisions and barriers with cooperation and openness.
Reaching a final outcome is also crucial for the EU. Negotiations have spanned two Commissions, and the ability to deliver on this agreement will be not only a measure of its weight in the Western Balkans, but also of the EU’s growing relevance and influence as a global actor.
Ultimately, however time is running out. The current Commission’s mandate ends in autumn next year, which means the focus will shift towards the European parliamentary election.
With today’s global politics rife with uncertainty, we cannot know if the next EU Commission will have the time, or energy, to remain as committed to completing the final stages of this agreement. Now is the time for all those involved to drive this to the end.