It is true that we had intended to host the third formal high-level meeting between the two leaders in Brussels before the summer break – which will not happen. However, we do not see this as a major problem or a tragedy at this point in time. The most important thing is that both leaders, President Vučić and Prime Minister Kurti, have agreed to meet regularly and take the Dialogue to the highest political level. This is necessary to make progress on the big picture, i.e., the comprehensive normalisation agreement ~ Miroslav Lajčák
Miroslav Lajčák’s mandate as EU Special Representative for the Belgrade- Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues was recently extended, and this Slovak diplomat says that he thinks that an additional two years is “absolutely sufficient time” to conclude the Dialogue and create conditions for the signing of a comprehensive, all-encompassing agreement on the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. Speaking in this interview for CorD Magazine, Lajčák discusses the Pristina government’s decision to withdraw the validity of the vehicle license plates and personal documents of Serbs in the northern part of Kosovo, which were issued in Serbia. The EU Special Representative insists that “the phasingout of these plates was no surprise – either for us or for Belgrade”, though he adds that, personally, he “would have wished for a better timing, more generous timelines and a more detailed procedure and information campaign” regarding this step.
Mr Lajčák, you have been engaged over recent months on the organisation of a meeting between Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti. With the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina at a standstill, what could be the actual scope of such a meeting?
Firstly, I would not say that the Dialogue is at a standstill. We have had regular meetings at the level of Chief Negotiators in Brussels on an almost monthly basis, which have yielded tangible results. This is evidenced by the recent agreement on the energy roadmap, which is the first major Dialogue agreement since 2016. It is clear that there are challenges, but discussions and contacts are ongoing, so we are making progress, albeit not as fast as I would prefer.
Secondly, it is true that we intended to host the third formal high-level meeting between the two leaders in Brussels before the summer break – which will not happen. However, we do not see this as a major problem or a tragedy at this point in time. The most important is that both leaders, President Vučić and Prime Minister Kurti, have agreed to meet regularly and take the Dialogue to the highest political level. This is necessary to make progress on the big picture – which is the comprehensive normalisation agreement. At the same time, we want to make sure that this official meeting in Brussels will be productive and deliver concrete results – we need to have guarantees on this, and therefore advanced preparation is needed. So, the question is not so much about the timing, but about the quality of the meeting. After assessing the situation, we decided that the circumstances are not yet conducive enough and it is better to allow more time for preparation to ensure that the meeting fulfils its purpose and takes the normalisation process forward.
Multiple analyses show a lack of progress on the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, while certain analysts cite examples of worsening relations. You nonetheless remain optimistic that pro progress is possible. What forms the basis of that optimism?
As I mentioned before, it is clear that there are challenges and that the Parties have very different views on many of the issues on the table, including on what comprehensive normalisation means. We are not denying this. However, painting a gloomy picture and spreading negativity does not help. We need to maintain optimism in order to bring positive momentum to our work. It is important to work on issues where there are common interests and where progress is possible, and there are many of them – including the broader strategic dimension. We need to remember that the normalisation process is linked to the respective EU paths of both Kosovo and Serbia – there will be no EU accession for either without the comprehensive normalisation of relations, and the Parties know this. EU membership is a strategic goal for both Kosovo and Serbia, so I am confident that progress in the Dialogue is ultimately inevitable, while the fact that both leaders are ready to meet regularly in Brussels is a sign of their commitment to achieve the comprehensive normalisation of relations – despite current differences of opinion on what this entails.
You recently announced that the final stages of drafting are underway on three or four agreements between the governments in Belgrade and Pristina. Could you tell us which areas are covered by these agreements?
It is true that there are different documents in an advanced stage of finalisation. One of the issues is Missing Persons, which I have already spoken about publicly.
The aim is to give an additional political impetus to the process of locating the remaining missing persons in order to close this painful chapter, which is what the families need and which would give an enormous boost to the reconciliation process across the entire region. What I can say at this point about the other agreements is that they all aim for improved cooperation between Kosovo and Serbia, and also more broadly within the region of the Western Balkans.
So, hopefully, once agreed, they will have a positive impact on both relations between Kosovo and Serbia and on regional cooperation, which is currently facing many challenges. We need to find ways to overcome them so that regional cooperation can fulfil its potential to bring tangible benefits to the citizens.
You spoke recently with Kosovo PM Kurti. Did you receive an explanation of the decision to change the vehicle registration regime that will force Serbs to attach license plates containing the Republic of Kosovo symbol to their cars as of 1st October?
Both Serbia and Kosovo agreed already in 2011 that all persons residing in Kosovo would have only Kosovo-issued license plates, meaning there will no longer be Serbian license plates for Kosovo Serbs. This Agreement was implemented in the south of Kosovo, but not in the north. It was always clear that, at a certain point, this Agreement needed full implementation, also in the north. So, I agree that these plates have to phase out, as this was decided jointly by Serbia and Kosovo. So, it is not out of the question that all Kosovo residents would have to re-register to Kosovo-issued plates. However, I would have wished for better timing, more generous timelines and a more detailed procedure and information campaign – and I have communicated this clearly to PM Kurti.
The decision regarding vehicle license plates and personal documents issued in Serbia (the validity of which has also been suspended) was allegedly announced during your June visit at the very point that you were travelling between Pristina and Belgrade. That seemed to surprise you, but not so EU external affairs lead spokesperson Peter Stano, who said that they knew in Brussels about the moves the government in Pristina would take? Could you explain what this is all about and your own stance regarding new measures taken by the government in Pristina?
Overall, the phasing-out of these plates was no surprise – either for us or for Belgrade. Kosovo announced it already in September last year, but suspended the implementation at my request during the six months in which the Working Group on license plates was looking into a permanent solution. We repeatedly warned the Serbian Government that this will come and that it should seek a negotiated solution. When it comes to the concrete measures, Kosovo gave us a heads-up shortly before, but we were not consulted on the details of the plan.
I do not believe that there will be any armed conflict again in the Western Balkans. However, we know that there is always a risk of tensions spilling over and we have thus always prioritised the resolution of any disagreements between Kosovo and Serbia through Dialogue
Do you consider Serbian President Vučić’s fear – expressed after his meeting with you – that implementing the decision on license plates could destabilise Kosovo and even lead to armed conflict with Serbs in the north of the breakaway province, as being justified?
I do not believe that there will be any armed conflict again in the Western Balkans. However, we know that there is always a risk of tensions spilling over and we have thus always prioritised the resolution of any disagreements between Kosovo and Serbia through Dialogue and with the willingness to show goodwill and flexibility on both sides. It is the clear responsibility of both Parties to prevent another crisis from happening and I do not consider divisive public statements from leaders on either side as being particularly helpful to calming the situation. That being said, we are constantly monitoring the situation in Kosovo and engage with both parties to refrain from any unilateral action, which could jeopardise security on the ground and further complicate progress in the Dialogue.
It seems as though the mutually accepted obligation of forming the Community of Serb Municipalities has not yet made it onto the agenda of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, despite this year marking the tenth anniversary of the Brussels Agreement under which its formation was agreed upon. What do you think the problem is?
We continue to work with both Parties on a wide range of issues, including the establishment of the Association/Community of Serb Majority Municipalities. The establishment of 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 and it is now up to the two Parties to implement it. We understand that this issue is sensitive for the Kosovo government, but it is also an international legal obligation. My view is that there can be no more delays, which I and many of the international community continue to convey to the Kosovo PM and Chief Negotiator.
All six know exactly what their pending homework is and for some we have seen zero movement for far too long. So, right now there is momentum for enlargement and the region should be extra motivated to seize it and not let it slip away
The rhetoric around the establishment of the Association has created an unhelpful narrative. The Ahtisaari Plan set out clear commitments of Kosovo for the Kosovo Serb majority municipalities to exercise their competencies in partnership and association with each other. That commitment was accepted by the Kosovo government and has been enshrined in Kosovo’s Constitution and laws. The establishment of the Association is therefore based on what has already been accepted by Kosovo.
On the other hand, many Kosovo Serbs will not have read or know much about the Ahtisaari Plan or the Kosovo Constitution and legal framework, and the wide protection they provide them and other communities in Kosovo. The establishment of the Association is intended to create a trusted relationship between Kosovo Serbs and the government in Kosovo, as well as to ensure that Kosovo Serb-majority municipalities can work together, including with support from Serbia, to ensure the Kosovo Serbian community in Kosovo develops and thrives.
It is now time that both Kosovo and Serbia talk about the practical implications of implementing these protections in a way that works for everyone and will result in improved local governance and improving the lives of Kosovo Serbs and other communities in Kosovo.
While you’re hoping for a resumption of dialogue and progress in the form of the signing of new agreements, there’s talk in Pristina of a campaign to join the Council of Europe and other international organisations. How do you view these activities, which are supported by some members of the EU and the Quint, and how do these processes impact on opportunities for genuine success in the dialogue that you’re mediating?
Questions relating to membership in international organisations are not on the agenda of the EUfacilitated Dialogue. Generally, the EU does not comment on applications to join other international organisations. The EU is a strategic partner of the Council of Europe, without voting rights. As far as I am concerned, both Kosovo and Serbia should focus on taking their normalisation process forward without further delay by fully implementing all past Agreements and making progress towards a legally-binding comprehensive normalisation agreement while refraining from any action that could undermine stability and is not conducive to dialogue.
You recently related your position that the EU has “unfinished business” in the Western Balkans, after which you gave a critical review of EU conduct in the region, stating: “For too long we were complacent”. What were you referring to specifically and what should be done to change the EU’s attitude towards the Western Balkans?
We showed clear political leadership towards the East in June by taking the decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and giving a clear EU perspective to Georgia. At that point, the countries of the Western Balkans were disappointed because they’ve been engaged in this process for a long time and were hoping for more, while the enlargement to encompass the Western Balkans has turned into a technical process rather than a political one. We have since held the first Intergovernmental Conferences with Albania and North Macedonia, which sounds like another meeting in Brussels, but is actually a big and important step towards their EU membership. It is now that the negotiations are really starting and I’m happy about that. I also think that visa liberalisation for Kosovo is long overdue and should be granted without delay.
Candidate countries know exactly what the conditions they need to fulfil for EU membership are and the conditions for Serbia include real reform efforts, alignment with our EU foreign and security policy and normalisation of relations with Kosovo
At the same time, however, I also see it as a two-way street. It is not just about what the EU should do differently, but what the region can and should do. The EU, and most importantly the EU Member States, need to see that you really want to reform, to get fit for membership, to cooperate with your immediate neighbours and make progress, and we have not seen this from everyone in the region. All six know exactly what their pending homework is and for some we have seen zero movement for far too long. So, right now there is momentum for enlargement and the region should be extra motivated to seize it and not let it slip away.
In contrast, during one recent interview for the Serbian media you stated that membership candidate countries must also fulfil the obligations they’ve accepted. When it comes to Serbia, the most recent report of the European Parliament included a list of obligations to which Serbia did not commit itself – namely consenting to the mutual recognition of statehood with Kosovo. Is the fulfilling of this requirement a precondition for Serbia’s continued progress towards EU membership?
Candidate countries know exactly what the conditions they need to fulfil for EU membership are and the conditions for Serbia include real reform efforts, alignment with our EU foreign and security policy and normalisation of relations with Kosovo. I have said repeatedly that the agenda, pace and outcome of the Dialogue depends on the Parties, who jointly co-own the Dialogue. If you read my mandate, which has been agreed by consensus among all 27 Member States, the outcome of the process is to normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia. That needs to be a sustainable and lasting solution that’s in line with international law and the EU acquis – and this is up to the Parties to agree. For Kosovo, normalisation means mutual recognition, for Serbia, it may not. As I said, in the end, it is up to the Parties to see what they can both agree on.
Your mandate as EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Priština dialogue was recently extended for an additional two years. Do you believe this will provide sufficient time to reach an agreement that will be to the satisfaction of both sides and the EU?
I absolutely think that this is sufficient time. As I’ve said many times before, it depends on the willingness of both Kosovo and Serbia – as the two co-owners of the Dialogue – to actually make progress and move towards their European future, instead of remaining stuck in the past. I think all political leaders owe that to their citizens. We now have a favourable calendar without regular major elections scheduled in the EU, the U.S., the biggest EU capitals or the region. That is a window of opportunity that’s not to be missed.
There will be no EU accession for either Serbia or Kosovo without the comprehensive normalisation of relations, and the Parties know this
|SERB MAYORITY MUNICIPALITIES|
The Ahtisaari Plan set out clear commitments of Kosovo for the Kosovo Serb majority municipalities to exercise their competencies in partnership and association with each other
|KOSOVO IO MEMBERSHIP|
Questions relating to membership in international organisations are not on the agenda of the EU-facilitated Dialogue