Serbia has made steady progress in its accession negotiations, in line with the Serbian government’s strategic goal of EU membership.
The Belgrade – Priština Dialogue has its ups and downs, and sometimes it seems like there is no progress regarding some problems that can’t be solved easily such are missed people or car plates. We spoke with Miroslav Lajčak, EU Special Representative for Belgrade – Priština Dialogue about mentioned problems, the Union of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo and Metohija, the Open Balkan Initiative, and many other topics.
A roadmap for the implementation of energy agreements within the framework of the EU-mediated dialogue between Belgrade and Priština was approved in Brussels. What is the possibility of the formation of the Union of Serbian Municipalities in Kosovo and Metohija after this agreement?
The recent agreement between Belgrade and Pristina on energy is a step forward. The Roadmap sets out a clear timeline and concrete steps for the implementation of the Energy Agreements of 2013 and 2015. We – and here I think I can also speak for our American and British partners – now expect that both Parties adhere to the agreed steps and implement them in a timely manner and in good faith. It should be acknowledged that the agreement will benefit Kosovo Serbs living in the north of Kosovo who will have an improved electricity supply, while at the same time, it is also good for Kosovo as a whole. We will continue to work with both Parties on other issues on the agenda, including the establishment of the Association/Community of Serbian majority Municipalities, which remains a key issue to be addressed. The Association/Community is an agreement reached by both Parties as part of the 2013 Brussels Agreement. The agreement was ratified by the Kosovo parliament. It is now up to the two Parties to implement the agreement. My view is that there can be no more delay, which I conveyed to the Prime Minister of Kosovo when I met him last week.
In addition to energy, two more important topics are on the table – vehicle license plates and the missing persons. In your opinion, what is a solution for these two issues in the further course of the dialogue?
The agreement on energy is a step forward. We will continue to work with both Parties on other issues on the agenda, including on Missing Persons. Missing Persons is a very symbolic issue in the context of reconciliation, and it is at the same a very real issue for the families who live with uncertainties for decades. Moreover, Missing Persons has an important humanitarian dimension. This is why we discuss it in the Dialogue as a matter of priority for both Parties. As such, it will remain high on the Dialogue agenda. We urge both Parties to show flexibility in order to give renewed political impetus to the efforts to resolve the remaining cases of Missing Persons.
Concerning the vehicle licence plates, we were informed about Kosovo government’s plans, but not consulted. According to Dialogue Agreements on Freedom of Movement from 2011 and 2016, which Serbia agreed to, Kosovo has the right to phase out “KM” plates, meaning plates issued by Serbian authorities for Kosovo. The agreements are clear that only Kosovo-issued plates are to be used in Kosovo. At the same time, it is important to recall that Kosovo Serbs did not use the period between 2011 and 2021 to re-register their vehicles to Kosovo-issued plates as stipulated in the agreements. Therefore, the decision of the Kosovo government on the act of phasing out “KM” plates is not in violation of the agreements. However, the methodology adopted by the Kosovo government for phasing out the “KM” plates is not in line with the Agreement from 2016. The Agreement sets out a clear sequence of steps and timelines, which remain valid and should be followed by Kosovo.
We urge both parties to show flexibility in order to give renewed political impetus to the efforts to resolve the remaining cases of Missing Persons.
It is essential that sufficient time is given for the implementation of Kosovo’s decision, and that it is prepared and executed in close consultation with the affected citizens, and in line with good European practices – which is currently not the case. The EU is concerned by the current rhetoric following the decision of the government of Kosovo, as well as the lack of proper dialogue between the Parties. We expect both Kosovo and Serbia to act constructively in this regard, and not put any hurdles that would constrain freedom of movement or create tensions on the ground. We urge both Parties to use the EU-facilitated Dialogue as the platform to address and resolve all open issues between them, including related to freedom of movement and licence plates.
You stated that progress has been made in the Belgrade-Priština dialogue and that much has been done, despite it not being so obvious. You also added that the main negotiators meet every month in Brussels and that an agreement on the future normalization of relations between Belgrade and Priština is being worked on. What could such a new agreement cover?
A lot of work has been done in the Dialogue and there has been progress, although this has not been so obvious. The two Chief Negotiators are meeting every month in Brussels and we are discussing a number of concrete issues, including the implementation of past agreements. We are also discussing current issues to make sure they do not turn into potential problems and lately, we are working on the future of the normalization agreement. There has been definite progress made between the two Parties with the recent roadmap on energy, which was important to help build momentum.
A comprehensive normalisation agreement is urgent as the status quo is not sustainable – It is time for this process to come to a successful end. The Dialogue is facilitated by the EU but owned by the two Parties equally. It is up to them to decide on the elements of the future normalisation agreement. The agreement on the normalisation of the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia must be comprehensive and legally binding and it should address all outstanding issues. The path to the European Union for both Parties goes through the EU-facilitated Dialogue. The EU encourages Kosovo and Serbia to engage proactively and constructively in the process because we believe this is in the interest of Kosovo and its citizens as well as Serbia and the wider Western Balkan region.
You also said that due to the war in Ukraine, the EU is more open to enlargement. Do you think that Serbia could utilize that opportunity?
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is a wake up call on the need to accelerate the accession process to the Western Balkans. We have no time to lose. As I said following the meeting EU-WB meeting on 23 June, we took a geopolitical decision on Eastern Europe, but we failed to have the same strategic view on the Western Balkans. This generated deep disappointment in the region. I’m proud of our EU leadership in the East, but we must regain it for our South-Eastern neighbours as well.
The Western Balkans continue to be a priority for this Commission. They have a clear European perspective and their future lies in the EU. The European Union is firmly committed to Serbia’s EU path. The EU’s future is with Serbia and Serbia’s future is with the EU. Serbia has made steady progress in its accession negotiations, in line with the Serbian government’s strategic goal of EU membership. This has led to the opening of 18 negotiating chapters, two of which have been provisionally closed. Serbia’s perspective of joining the EU is real, tangible and reachable. It has been confirmed on many occasions by the European Union and unanimously by all Member States. Already today, the EU is by far Serbia’s first economic and political partner. 65% of Serbia’s total trade are with the EU. EU firms represent 70% of foreign investors in Serbia.
The EU’s future is with Serbia and Serbia’s future is with the EU.
As you know, the accession process is a merit-based process. It is for Serbia to define the pace of its accession process, especially through strong commitment to reforms on the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights and continuous engagement in the EU-facilitated Dialogue on normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. But what I would also add here, is that alignment with EU values has become more prominent for Member States and enlargement is seen through this lense.
As I said, it is also up to Serbia to utilize the opportunity now, but also candidate countries have an obligation to progressively harmonize with the EU positions including with restrictive measures in respect of RF actions undermining territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. As HRVP Josep Borrell said, we expect Serbia to act as an honest candidate and a reliable partner to our common values and principles.”
If the EU supports all inclusive initiatives based on European standards, what is your view of the Open Balkans initiative and how much can it expedite the integration process and the Belgrade-Priština dialogue?
I think it is always good if the region cooperates and the EU encourages more and closer regional cooperation, as in the end of the day, the Western Balkan partners aspire to co-exist in the wider EU family and for that being able to cooperate with your neighbours is key. At the same time, in my view, the Open Balkan Initiative emerged as a reaction to the lack of progress in the EU enlargement process. Instead of more regional formats, we should focus on those, which bring all the Western Balkans together and make sure that they are working.
For instance, the Common Regional Market initiative was launched in 2020 under the Berlin Process to foster regional cooperation in the Western Balkans and their European integration. It encompasses all six partners in the Western Balkans and is purposely structured around the EU four freedoms.
Instead of more regional formats, we should focus on those, which bring all the Western Balkans together and make sure that they are working.
Having said that, I understand the aspirations of some Western Balkan leaders to own a process tailored to their own needs. I welcome that Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia agree that this initiative is not a substitute to the EU. The EU will support any regional initiative as long as it is inclusive, based on European values and help reconciliation to enhance the Western Balkans preparedness for their EU accession path. Nonetheless, any regional initiative, which does not include Kosovo and Serbia, can hardly serve as a springboard to foster dialogue between the two Parties.
The mandate of the European Union Special Representative the Belgrade-Priština Dialogue has been extended. What points related to the normalization of relations do you see as key in the coming period?
It is quite simple, we need to get back to negotiating the comprehensive agreement on full normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Over the past few months, we have been addressing the implementation of past agreements and current issues, but it is in the interest of both Parties and their EU aspirations to get back to the bigger picture. This does not mean we will not address the implementation of past agreements – both parties have a long list of outstanding commitments and the Association/Community is only one of them- and issues arising here and there, but this should happen in parallel to the negotiations of the normalisation agreement.