President Donald Trump is bringing the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to the White House in an attempt to finally end the two-decade dispute between the two countries. Unfortunately, he is leaving behind the most important player needed to forge a lasting democratic settlement: the European Union.
Although it’s been decades since the breakup of Yugoslavia and the subsequent conflicts that rocked the Western Balkans, leading to NATO intervention, the region remains on a precipice, with its peace, stability, and democratic future in doubt. Furthermore, the Balkans today have renewed geopolitical relevance, with both Russia and China seeking inroads to Europe.
Meanwhile, progress in integrating the region into the European Union and NATO has been uneven. Some states have made significant strides in strengthening the rule of law, implementing broad social and economic reforms, and joining Western institutions, while others have stagnated, struggling to resolve legacy conflicts and protect democratic processes. Institutions such as the European Union and NATO have been central to the region’s progress, with the prospect of membership serving as a driver for stabilization. After the 1990s, the European Union, with the help of the United States as a security guarantor through NATO, drove the necessary economic and social progress for candidate countries looking to join Western institutions.
However, the European Union now has expansion fatigue. The massive eastern expansion in the 2000s brought in members that were still plagued with corruption and economic troubles, while making it more difficult for the European Union to operate with the consensus of 27 members. Even those member states favoring deeper integration have balked at further expansion into the Western Balkans—most recently showcased by France’s veto on membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania.
The key to stabilizing the Balkans, resolving old conflicts, and ensuring the region moves toward democracy has always been EU membership. Ultimately, it is the European Union, not the United States, that has much more to offer than Russia or China. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s rocky relationship with Brussels and willingness to sidestep the European Union have often derailed joint steps toward conflict resolution in the Western Balkans. Last October—when the European Union was considering enlargement—then-U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland was testifying before Congress over his role in the president’s efforts to extort Ukraine rather than trying to unite American and European policymakers. The divisions between U.S. and European approaches have only grown since then—not just on the Western Balkans but also within a broad set of trans-Atlantic challenges. However, moving forward, any U.S. efforts to help end the Kosovo-Serbia conflict must closely involve the European Union.
The importance of EU involvement
In recent years, the impetus for reform and to stay on the democratic path has weakened, and hard-liners in the Balkans have gained more of a foothold. As momentum for EU membership has stalled, Western Balkan countries have found new suitors in the form of China and Russia. Both have sought to undermine EU and NATO expansion. Russia even allegedly attempted a coup in Montenegro to stop it from joining NATO in 2016 and has increased its military assistance to Serbia, providing it with MiG fighter jets. Meanwhile, last year, China formed the 17+1 dialogue with EU and Western Balkan states in an effort to use its economic weight to gain influence through the funding of infrastructure projects.
The past few months have been particularly tumultuous for the already fragile region, especially Serbia and Kosovo. Kosovo’s government fell in March, leading then-Prime Minister Albin Kurti to make provocative allegations that the United States was directly involved. It took months to form a coalition government, and the new prime minister, Avdullah Hoti, immediately appealed for the full support of both the European Union and the United States after taking office. For now, Hoti is looking to foster growth and stability wherever possible. Serbia has also had to grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has exploited a state of emergency to expand his powers, slamming the European Union while continuing to foster a close relationship with China. The coronavirus crisis also directly clashed with scheduled parliamentary elections in Serbia, prompting public criticism both at home and abroad of the Vucic government’s approach and boycotts from the opposition. Vucic’s Progressive Party later won an overwhelming majority of seats, as the boycott and the pandemic drove voter turnout down to less than 50 percent. Against this chaotic backdrop, and as the United States more closely involves itself in the ongoing conflict, the two governments seem to be inching closer to a potential deal.
Trump’s political stake in facilitating a Kosovo-Serbia deal
The Trump administration has been uncharacteristically focused on the Western Balkans over the last three years, from a high-profile White House meeting in early March, to a Donald Trump Jr. tweet encouraging U.S. troop withdrawal from Kosovo, to a top Trump ally, Richard Grenell, serving as the special envoy for Kosovo-Serbia negotiations. Traditionally, this engagement would be celebrated, and during previous U.S. administrations, a change in leadership or a new avenue for progress in the talks would be cause for optimism. At the beginning of the Trump administration, there were even hopes among experts and policymakers in the Balkans and the United States that the White House’s interest in the region might rejuvenate the discussions; dialogue between the two countries has long been stalled. Under the Trump administration, the United States fully supported Kosovo’s new commitment to partially lift the 100 percent tariffs placed on Serbia in 2018, and it likely facilitated the agreement to drop Serbia’s de-recognition campaign ahead of this month’s White House meeting. But the Trump administration’s approach has prompted criticism from House Democrats, who have been particularly concerned about the administration’s threats of economic penalties against Kosovo if the tariffs weren’t dropped and even suggestions to pull peacekeepers out of the country. The two countries seem closer to a deal than ever despite these disagreements.
However, the White House’s robust effort seems to have one end goal: to get Trump a diplomatic win in a pivotal year that could be an example of his administration’s commitment to ending long-standing conflicts around the world. To be clear, making progress toward resolving a decades-old conflict should be welcomed, even if the motivation is purely political. But amid these new developments, the European Union’s role is suddenly unclear. Trump’s desire for a political win should not come at the expense of the substance of the deal.
The stability of the region is dependent on integration into the European Union. Yet Grenell, who has been at the diplomatic forefront of U.S. efforts, has repeatedly cut out EU involvement. His handling of negotiations between the two countries has raised significant concerns among U.S. and European experts. He has broken from decades of U.S. policy that kept the European Union at the center of the negotiation process and prioritized long-term stability over quick wins; ignored traditional structures to broker agreements; and kept allies in the dark. He has led, in effect, a separate negotiation track for months, divorced from the United States’ European allies. Grenell now also serves in a senior role on the Trump reelection campaign, adding to the clear sense of his political motivations.
Rather than involve the European Union in the process, Grenell has opted to directly engage with leaders from Serbia and Kosovo, who, likely frustrated with the EU’s role over the last few years, have appeared to follow the United States’ lead. Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, has reportedly refused to meet with the European Union’s recently appointed Kosovo-Serbia negotiator, Miroslav Lajcak, noting that Lajcak’s home country of Slovakia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent country. Instead, Thaci has committed to the process driven by Grenell and the Trump White House. This could divide the talks, leaving Kosovo’s new Prime Minister to engage with Lajcak, or even stall them completely.
The White House’s apparent circumvention of the European Union could have disastrous implications, especially if a potential deal is based around land swaps. This idea, first floated by Thaci and Vucic years ago, would change the borders to swap Serb areas of Kosovo with ethnically Albanian communities in Serbia. Land swaps have been traditionally opposed by both the United States and the European Union; experts have argued that further dividing the region along ethnic lines could be destabilizing. Shifting borders to appease ethnic minorities and to seek greater ethnic homogeneity could recreate a dangerous precedent that borders can be changed, opening up a can of worms throughout a region with vulnerable ethnic populations, such as Serb populations in Croatia or Hungarian populations in Romania. Although Grenell has publicly denied that a land swap was being discussed, officials in Kosovo have kept the option open, reportedly pushing influencers to lobby in favor of such a deal. By cutting out the European Union and its members’ objections, Grenell could be laying the groundwork for a quick deal that ignores the European Union’s stated policies and threatens future progress toward enlargement. Doing so may result in a short-lived diplomatic win, but ultimately it would be hollow.
Ultimately, a deal between Kosovo and Serbia would be a step in the right direction. It’s a key precondition for Kosovo to move forward with joining Western institutions and would be the result of years of diplomatic efforts on the behalf of both the European Union and United States. But the deal needs to be based around ensuring the territorial integrity of each state and preserving democratic institutions; these have been the pillars of the U.S.- and EU-led efforts for years. Any maneuvers to circumvent the European Union that are intended to push through a deal that includes a land swap would be troubling and potentially destabilizing. Policymakers should be cautious about any deal coming forward, especially if it has been reached without the European Union.
The future of the Western Balkans should be in Western institutions, and the European Union needs to be central to any deal. America needs to work with its EU partners to bring a lasting resolution to the conflict. Let’s hope the Trump administration doesn’t undercut this long-term goal for the sake of a short-term political win.
Siena Cicarelli is a research assistant for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center. James Lamond is a fellow at the Center.