- In spite of Kosovo's EU Stabilization and Association Agreement, the country will not join the continental bloc in the foreseeable future.
- The prospect of EU accession will continue to stabilize the Western Balkans as countries such as Serbia and Kosovo try to avoid radical behavior that could jeopardize membership.
- The ongoing EU crisis makes accepting new members increasingly unlikely, which will limit Brussels' regional influence, raising the possibility of renewed ethnic conflict.
Kosovo is approaching a symbolic juncture in its short history. On Oct. 27, the young country will sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union, a document that formally begins the long process of joining the continental bloc. Kosovo will be gradually given tariff-free access to EU markets, and the government will need to begin to comply with EU requirements by implementing economic, social and political reforms.
But members of the European Union are divided when it comes to Kosovo. Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania and Greece do not even recognize the country's 2008 independence from Serbia, and this does not look set to change soon. Countries such as Spain and Romania, which have their own domestic factions calling for separatism, fear that recognizing Kosovo will set a dangerous precedent. Because of these internal divisions, the upcoming agreement will be signed not by individual member states but by the European Union itself as a legal entity.
Serbia has its own EU aspirations. It became an official candidate for EU membership in 2012, and since then the European Union has not formally required that it recognize Kosovo's independence. Instead, Brussels has requested that both parties normalize relations. While officially Serbia remains firm in its decision not to recognize an independent Kosovo, in reality Serbian leaders have accepted that they will not recover the breakaway territory anytime soon.
Relations between the Serbian and Kosovar governments are still tense, but EU pressure has brought about a certain degree of stability. While Serbian politicians often use heated rhetoric when it comes to Kosovo, most of them consider EU membership to be the priority and will take care not to take any action that could jeopardize the process. This applies to leaders in Kosovo as well. From 2007 to 2013, the European Union allocated Kosovo 673.9 million euros ($742.9 million) in financial assistance, and it will give the country almost as much — 645 million euros — over the period from 2014 to 2020. Ultimately, the EU accession process is simply too lucrative to sacrifice for nationalist concerns.
Brussels is maneuvering to avoid inflaming conflict between the two Balkan nations as well. Only a few weeks after Kosovo signs the EU agreement, the bloc will open two additional chapters in Serbia's membership negotiations. This suggests that Brussels wants to reassure Serbia its path to the accession remains open. For the European Union, the negotiations with Serbia and Kosovo are inextricably linked; to bring both into the union, Brussels has to find a way to balance the two adversaries.
Despite relatively amicable relations between Serbia and Kosovo lately, some sticking points remain. Chief among these is the issue of ethnic Serbs living in northern Kosovo. The European Union is pushing Serbia to transfer control of the police and judiciary in northern Kosovo to Kosovar authorities, but the process has been slow. In addition, local Serbs often block roads in northern Kosovo, stirring local resentment. Early elections in both countries in 2014 also slowed down the process of normalizing bilateral relations. More recently, tensions heightened again following Kosovo's announcement that it plans to create its own army.
Kosovo's rapprochement with Serbia also carries a domestic political price. For weeks, Kosovar opposition parties have been protesting recent agreements to grant more autonomy to the Serbian minority in the north. The opposition has also criticized a recent border agreement with Montenegro that, it argues, cedes territory. Opponents of these agreements have clashed with police during protests in front of the parliament building in Pristina.
The European Union has its own concerns about Kosovo's prospective membership. Brussels has repeatedly warned about the unsatisfactory rule of law in Kosovo, citing the lack of judicial independence, and has criticized the country's limited results in the fight against organized crime as well as corruption. In addition, it is calling for institutional improvements such as electoral reform and changes in public administration. Finally, the European Union wants Kosovo to introduce economic reforms to improve competitiveness and reduce unemployment, which is above 30 percent.
The Long Road
Even after the agreement, Kosovo is still a long way from actually joining the continental bloc. In addition to Kosovo's long list of pending reforms, the European Union has little interest in incorporating new members at a time when the bloc itself is in existential crisis. Croatia was the last country to join in 2013, and Serbia is next in line with a wait time of at least a decade. Countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, which have also signed EU association agreements, face similarly faint prospects of actual membership.
This highlights one of the European Union's major challenges. On the one hand, political fragmentation is threatening to freeze, if not reverse, the process of continental integration and to stop the membership growth process. On the other, Brussels needs to reassure candidates in the Western Balkans about their prospect of joining. Despite its multiple shortcomings, the European Union is still a stabilizing force in a naturally unstable region. Countries such as Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania still see EU membership — and in some cases NATO membership — as an important foreign policy goal. This gives the European Union a tool to keep these conflicts from escalating into violence.
By maintaining close ties with Western Balkan nations, the European aims not only to prevent the reemergence of ethnic conflict but also to limit the influence of Russia and Turkey. In addition, energy issues give Brussels ample reason to exert influence in the region: Most of the Balkan countries are part of the route for several projects to deliver natural gas to Central and Southern Europe. More recently, these countries have become transit states for migrants from the Middle East trying to reach northern Europe and thus vital allies in the union's effort to limit the immigrants crossing its external borders.
But as Europe's financial and political crisis drags on, its influence over the Western Balkans will likely decrease. This may not have an immediate impact, because Russia and Turkey are facing problems of their own: They are not ready to replace the European Union as the region's main financial sponsor. However, the prospect of a power vacuum is potentially more dangerous than the replacement of one foreign sponsor with another. The more these countries feel that they have little prospect of economic development and institutional integration with a larger political entity, the more likely they are to resort to centuries-old nationalism and ethnic hatred.