The Washington meeting covers previous dialogue agreements and topics currently under discussion in Brussels, already existing EU-financed infrastructure projects and the positions of the U.S. government…We welcome it if the commitments made at the White House mean that the U.S. will contribute financially to existing projects – Miroslav Lajčák
There is absolutely no rivalry between the U.S. and the EU regarding the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština, says Miroslav Lajčak, European envoy for that process, speaking for CorD Magazine.
However, he explains that the EU wasn’t familiarised with the contents of the documents signed by Aleksandar Vučić and Avdullah Hoti in Washington, although Europeans consider the Americans as being their main partner in the Western Balkans. The dialogue on the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Priština is by no means easy, because if it was then it would already have been completed, says Miroslav Lajčak, who nonetheless still believes that “a comprehensive agreement can be reached in months rather than years”. For that to happen, he says, it is necessary for both sides to “show generosity and seek compromises, so that ultimately everyone wins a little bit for the benefit of their people”.
Mr Lajčak, how would you evaluate September’s high-level meeting of leaders from Belgrade and Priština in Brussels?
Our last high-level meeting with President Vučić and Prime Minister Hoti took place on 7th September in Brussels. It was a productive meeting. We managed to achieve full progress on the elements of the comprehensive normalisation agreement that were under discussion since the last high-level meeting in July – namely missing and displaced persons and economic cooperation.
Doing so allowed us to now shift the focus of our negotiations to arrangements for the non-majority community – Association/Community – and the settlement of mutual financial claims and property, as part of the comprehensive agreement. Both topics are very complex and sensitive for both parties.
The Association/ Community of Serb Municipalities has not yet been established, and that is regrettable. We expect Priština to propose a way forward to implement this agreement
Does the atmosphere of the meeting and the messages emanating from it provide hope that the pace of the dialogue can intensify, in accordance with your wishes?
The pace has already intensified. I was very open with both parties about that from the very beginning. Between the first and second in-person highlevel meeting, the chief negotiators were in Brussels four times for intense rounds of negotiations. High Representative Borrell and I discussed with both parties how we see the Dialogue going forward, and both sides agreed to it and also publicly expressed their commitment to the EU-facilitated Dialogue, and by extension their European future, in a joint statement ahead of the meeting.
This is also why they sent their chief negotiators back to Brussels only ten days after that high-level meeting. We agreed with both chief negotiators prior to their meeting to follow-up on the initial discussions of the leaders on mutual financial claims –property. We also agreed to a follow-up discussion on the second topic: arrangements for the non-majority community – Association/Community.
The agenda of the meeting included issues related to property rights, international claims and the position of minorities. However, what happened with issues that have supposedly already been resolved, with obligations taken on under the scope of the first Brussels Agreement, but which have never been fulfilled? One of them is the formation of the Community/Association of Serb Municipalities. Do you intend to go back and address that which was agreed before you took on the role of the EU’s special envoy?
We expect past commitments to be honoured by both parties. The Association/Community of Serb municipalities has yet not been established, and that is regrettable. We expect Priština to propose a way forward to implement this agreement.
But there is another important dimension to this process that is at times forgotten: I was mandated by EU Member States to facilitate discussions on a comprehensive deal that addresses all outstanding issues between Belgrade and Priština – and not a series of technical agreements. Both parties agreed to this process and I expect them to engage constructively. So, as you can see, there is more work to be done than just implementing past agreements, even if this remains an important part of our efforts.
You stated on the eve of the resumption of dialogue that there are no time limits, which is interesting given that you’ve been quoted on several occasions as having previously mentioned the limited deadline for the completion of the dialogue. Media have reported that you told European officials on one occasion that a final agreement is a matter of weeks or months away, and not years. Could you clarify this?
Experience has taught me that it is never good to impose artificial timelines and I never set any deadlines. A comprehensive agreement naturally needs a bit of time, since – as the name suggests – it will be comprehensive, meaning that it will deal with all outstanding issues and needs to have clear provisions on how it will be implemented and monitored.
But what I said before remains valid: There is a general feeling that it is time to bring this process to an end. I believe a comprehensive agreement can be reached in months rather than years, provided both parties are willing to engage and compromise. As the facilitator, the EU will give the Dialogue the time it needs without speeding up artificially, but at the same time also without dragging it out unnecessarily.
Before we resumed the EUfacilitated Dialogue in July, I discussed the elements of the comprehensive agreement with President Vučić and Prime Minister Hoti. Both agreed to them in principle, so there are no surprises in terms of substance, and I also explained our methodology
Speaking at a recent gathering in Slovenia, you mentioned the red lines of the upcoming Dialogue between Belgrade and Priština. One of them insists that the final agreement must be in line with international law. What does that mean specifically: that any division of Kosovo is unacceptable, that UN Resolution 1244 must be respected, or something else?
As I said in Slovenia, any normalisation agreement has to be in line with international law, acceptable to the EU Member States, contribute to regional stability, deal with all outstanding issues once and for all, and contribute to their respective European paths.
As you know, the reactions to the idea of border corrections or land swaps have been very negative in EU Member States and the Western Balkans as a region, and therefore it is not in line with the principles I mentioned earlier.
You insist that any final agreement between Belgrade and Priština must be acceptable to EU member states. How can you reconcile the positions of the EU member states that have recognised independence and lobby strongly in its favour with those of the member states that do not accept the independence of Kosovo?
I am appointed and mandated by all EU Member States. All of them negotiated and agreed that I should “work on the comprehensive normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo through the conclusion of a legally binding agreement that addresses all outstanding issues between the parties, in accordance with international law, and contributes to regional stability”.
There is a strong interest among all member states in the Dialogue and the Western Balkans, I debrief them regularly and I have the full support of all member states.
Ultimately, it is up to member states whether they change or maintain their position on recognition, but I received signals from them that confirm that they are following the process very closely, also in the context of their respective national positions. Since the Dialogue aims to bring both parties closer to the European Union, it is only natural that any agreement must be acceptable to EU Member States. As President von der Leyen said in her State of the Union address: “the future of the whole region lies in the EU. We share the same history, we share the same destiny. The Western Balkans are part of Europe – and not just a stopover on the Silk Road.”. The Dialogue is an important element to make the European perspective a reality.
Speaking in a recent interview for CorD Magazine, your countryman and colleague, Slovakian Ambassador to Serbia Fedor Rosocha , stated that “recognition (of independence) per se is not mentioned anywhere, either in Chapter 35 or in the whole (EU accession) negotiation framework. Do you agree with that assessment?
I am not in the position to comment on or interpret what the Slovak Ambassador or any other Ambassador said or meant. In the Dialogue, we speak about normalisation of relations. There is a general understanding what that means, but in the end it is up to the parties to define what normalisation of relations means to them while finding a solution that is in line with international law and the EU acquis, is acceptable to EU member states, contributes to the stability of the region and, most importantly, helps them to make significant progress on their respective European paths.
You’ve stated that “EU membership isn’t given for free”, which makes the EU the most important mediator in the Belgrade- Priština dialogue. What price would have to be paid by Serbia and Kosovo respectively?
Both parties know that their respective European paths go through the Dialogue and that there is no alternative to the Dialogue. An EU-facilitated normalisation agreement will make this European perspective very tangible for both. Of course, the EU has clear accession criteria, i.e. on reforms to be met, but, the way I see it, constructive engagement in the Dialogue and a successful conclusion through a comprehensive agreement should accelerate their respective European paths.
The EU is not pre-writing an agreement and forcing the parties to sign up to it, and it cannot want the agreement more than the parties. We facilitate the process and we make sure that any agreement indeed brings both closer to the EU and doesn’t shift them further away. But in the end, the parties have to want the deal. This will not be easy. It means painful compromises for both to bring positions that are very far apart closer to each other and find common ground. If it were easy, all open issues would already have been resolved.
Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti says that in the dialogue with Belgrade he is only interested in “mutual recognition”. Is such a stance in accordance with your concept of the dialogue?
Both parties have their own understanding what normalisation means to them and both parties have elements of the comprehensive agreement that are a clear priority to them.
It is now up to both of them, together with the EU, to find a common understanding.
Before we resumed the EU-facilitated Dialogue in July, I discussed the elements of the comprehensive agreement with President Vučić and Prime Minister Hoti. Both agreed to them in principle, so there are no surprises in terms of substance, and I also explained our methodology. Speaking from the perspective of having a long career as a mediator and facilitator, a key principle in the negotiations of such an important, yet difficult and sensitive agreement is that not everyone can always win on every single article. Both parties have to show generosity and seek compromise so that in the end everyone wins a little bit for the benefit of their people.
The EU expects candidate countries to progressively align their policies towards third countries with the policies and positions adopted by the European Union. In this context, any diplomatic steps that could call into question the EU’s common position on Jerusalem are a matter of serious concern and regret
You aroused the interest of the public when you stated that the recent summit of leaders from Belgrade and Priština in Washington, DC was organised without any consultation with the EU. How do you interpret that?
We were informed about the meeting organised in the White House on 4th September and that it will focus on economic issues. But we did not see the two documents with commitments to the U.S., which President Vučić and Prime Minister Hoti signed ahead of time. The way I see it, it covers previous dialogue agreements and topics currently under discussion in Brussels, already existing EU-financed infrastructure projects, and positions of the U.S. government. The EU is the biggest investor, donor and commercial partner of the region. But, of course, we welcome it if the commitments made at the White House mean that the U.S. will contribute financing existing projects. And we welcome it if it means that Kosovo and Serbia will honour previous Dialogue commitments and proceed with the elements of implementation still outstanding.
At the same time, the EU expects candidate countries to progressively align their policies towards third countries with the policies and positions adopted by the European Union. In this context, any diplomatic steps that could call into question the EU’s common position on Jerusalem are a matter of serious concern and regret.
At the same time, EU member states welcomed the joint statement of President Vučić and Prime Minister Hoti saying that they give the highest priority to EU integration and will continue the work on the EU-facilitated Dialogue, and that they are committed to redoubling their efforts to ensure further EU alignment in accordance with their respective obligations. But the EU member states are also watching future actions very carefully and expect both to act in line with their statement.
Is there rivalry between the EU and the U.S. when it comes to the Belgrade- Priština dialogue?
There is absolutely no rivalry. The U.S. is our main partner in the Western Balkans. We always work best when we work hand in hand to promote the European perspective of the region.
In 2010, the UN member states, through a General Assembly resolution, welcomed the European Union as the facilitator of the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština, because both are in Europe. As such, we welcome initiatives by the U.S. and others in support of the EUfacilitated Dialogue.
How would you comment on the view that a solution to relations between Belgrade and Priština shouldn’t be sought through Brussels-based dialogue, but rather at a Dayton-style international conference that would include the participation of other major world powers?
Dayton is an important agreement. It put an end to the war. But we are comparing apples with oranges here. We are speaking about the normalisation of relations, not ending a war.
Normalisation is a process. Proposed solutions have to come from the parties themselves, for them to stick to that in the long-run. And they have to be found and discussed through Dialogue and should bring both parties closer to the European Union. This is why we have a Dialogue in Brussels and not elsewhere.
Since the Dialogue aims to bring both parties closer to the European Union, it is only natural that any agreement must be acceptable to EU Member States
In 2010, the UN member states, through a General Assembly resolution, welcomed the European Union as the facilitator of the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština, because both are in Europe
Proposed solutions have to come from the parties themselves, for them to stick to that in the long-run