As someone who is very familiar with the situation in the Balkans, James Ker-Lindsay, visiting professor at the London School of Economics, considers that the continuation of the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština should be dedicated to addressing key issues leading to mutual recognition and Kosovo’s admission into the United Nations. In the case that an agreement that would be supported by both sides also implies “an exchange of territory”, this is a solution that shouldn’t be avoided. The dangerous question of changing borders, which is always a cause of concern in the Western Balkans, could also become a topic for the UK, where Brexit is again bringing up the issue of the status of Northern Ireland, confirms Ker-Lindsay in this interview for CorD.
Professor Ker-Lindsay, the EU is preparing for elections and the finalising of Brexit arrangements, so there are ever more messages to the Western Balkans suggesting that a pause is coming in relatioLSEEns and on the EU accession process. How do you see the dynamics of these relationships by the end of 2019 and what do you see as the greatest challenges?
I think we have to understand the accession process in two separate ways. In the first instance, there is the legal and technical dimension. Are countries able to meet the formal requirements of membership? This is about harmonising national laws with the EU acquis communautaire, the EU’s body of laws, and then making sure those laws are being implemented effectively. Secondly, there is the wider political dimension of membership, whereby the the EU and its individual member states make a judgement as to whether they feel the EU is in a position to accept new members.
At this stage, I think the emphasis needs to be on the former, rather than the latter. We are not talking about any new countries joining the EU in the next few years. As things stand, no country will be ready to join before 2025. Even though Montenegro has made great progress in opening negotiation chapters, there are genuine concerns about implementation. Also, based on Croatia’s accession, any ratification process will take approximately two years to complete. I think that focusing on the big political picture at this stage is harmful as it sends the wrong message to the region and can be read as the EU trying to step back from accepting new members altogether. Instead, the focus should remain firmly on encouraging the countries of the Western Balkans to continue their reform efforts and make as much progress as possible towards meeting the technical requirements for membership.
You’ve stated that, following the reaching of agreement on the name of North Macedonia, there are two remaining unresolved issues in the Balkans – Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the unresolved dialogue between Belgrade and Priština. What do you foresee happening with Bosnia-Herzegovina?
To my mind, Bosnia-Herzegovina remains the most intractable problem in the Western Balkans. Numerous efforts have been made over the years to try to break the political deadlock in the country. Sadly, there has been little progress. The country remains deeply divided, and by all accounts the divisions are becoming more and more entrenched. My overall sense is that this will be the last issue to be resolved in the Western Balkans. It will only be tackled once the international community – specifically the EU and the United States – have solved the other issues in the region and can devote their attention on settling the situation. This is why resolving the Macedonia name issue was so important, and why it is crucial to try to find a comprehensive settlement of all outstanding issues between Serbia and Kosovo. Once these have been resolved I think there will be a real push to try to find a way to make Bosnia more functional and open its path to EU membership.
As things stand, no country will be ready to join before 2025. Even though Montenegro has made great progress in opening negotiation chapters, there are genuine concerns about implementation
When it comes to the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština, you believe that the international community has no reason to view the possible “rectification of borders” with trepidation. Does this mean you don’t believe in a domino effect across the rest of the Western Balkans?
This is obviously an extremely controversial topic. My starting point is that we need to see a final deal reached between Belgrade and Pristina that will see the two countries establish a normal relationship based on mutual recognition. This will see Kosovo join the United Nations, and open the way for Serbia’s EU membership. To this end, any options that do not violate international law should be on the table. If this means some mutually agreed territorial arrangement, then this should be permitted.
Of course, many argue that settling the differences between Kosovo and Serbia in this way necessarily opens the way to resolving other situations in the region in the same manner. I disagree. Under international law, what two sovereign states decide between themselves does not create a precedent for others. If Belgrade and Pristina agree to exchange territory as part of a final settlement, then this is their business. It does not open up an opportunity to others to seize that model. Simply put, one country agreeing to the separation of part of its territory does not mean that others are obliged to accept the same. If so, no countries would ever be allowed to secede by the rest of the international community. However, balanced against this, I understand the sensitivities around this issue. I think it is important to emphasise that any agreement must be subject to approval in Serbia and Kosovo and that the implications of any arrangement on the wider region must be carefully considered.
British analyst Timothy Less wrote in magazine Foreign Affairs about the specific need to adjust borders across the Western Balkans as a way of achieving lasting peace. Apart from Kosovo, Less considers that new borders must also be drawn within Bosnia- Herzegovina and perhaps in Macedonia and even Montenegro. Does the impetus to change Kosovo’s borders inevitably open this topic to discussion?
Personally, I do not think that we should consider wider territorial changes in the region. The situation between Kosovo and Serbia is a very specific issue that needs a mutually agreed solution. It is not something that I advocate in other situations in the Western Balkans. In fact, I believe that it would be very dangerous to open discussions on the territorial integrity of, for example, Bosnia-Herzegovina or North Macedonia. However, I do not believe that such debates are a necessary consequence of any agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. Again, what is agreed between two sovereign states is not a precedent for others.
Kosovo analyst Belul Beqaj believes that “border corrections” between Serbia and Kosovo according to ethnic principles would lead to the rest of Kosovo merging with Albania. Do you reject such an possibility?
This is certainly a possibility. However, I think that it is far more likely to happen if the current situation continues and there is no final settlement between Serbia and Kosovo. The more Kosovo is denied a place in the international system, the more incentive there is for it to circumvent the problem by uniting with Albania.
The option of drawing new borders doesn’t yet have support from the citizens of Kosovo, Central Serbia or the EU, where Germany is particularly opposed to the idea. Do you see any basis other than border rectification that could revive the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština?
I think that lots of things could revive the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. However, I think we need to consider what the purpose of the dialogue is now. To my mind, it should not be about trying to achieve various confidence building measures (CBMs) as part of a long-term incremental approach to improving bilateral relations. This could lead to another decade of uncertainty. I think it is far better to focus on a formal settlement that closes all the outstanding issues between Kosovo and Serbia and allows them to establish a formal relationship based on mutual recognition. This would ‘normalise’ the situation overnight. For this to happen, I think it will require some major decisions, and concessions, by both Belgrade and Pristina. In this context, there are a whole range of options that could be explored. However, I suspect none of them will be universally popular.
Do you consider that the EU should mediate the continuation of the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština, or is it inevitable for the United States, and perhaps Russia, to become formally involved? Some people have also mentioned the idea of returning of the process to UN frameworks?
My natural preference is to see the EU take the lead. The Western Balkans is surrounded by the EU, and its future lies in the EU. Also, the EU has a lot of levers that it can use to facilitate an agreement between the sides. However, it needs to be recognised that the United States and Russia are also going to have to play their parts in any settlement process. After all, they are both members of the UN Security Council. In this capacity, they have have the potential blocking role on any deal that it reached. Also, we can’t overlook the fact that, in their different ways, the two countries are seen by Belgrade and Pristina as protecting their interests.
As for a UN role, I am not sure that this would make sense. I would expect it to be strongly opposed by Pristina, which would almost certainly see it as reopening the status question.
Part of the public in Serbia has the impression that, following the Brexit decision, the UK has been engaged more actively in supporting the authorities in Priština – citing, for example, the example of strong support for Kosovo’s request to become a member of Interpol and the removing of debate on Kosovo from the agenda of the UN Security Council during the UK presidency, while there is also speculation about the intensification of London’s political-military counselling of Kosovo authorities in recent months. How would you comment on that?
The United Kingdom has long been one of Kosovo’s key supporters on the international stage. It was one of the first countries to recognise Kosovo. It also took a lead role in persuading other countries to do so. In this sense, London’s support for Pristina is nothing new. However, at the same time, I think it is important to acknowledge that Britain has also been keen to improve its ties with Serbia over the past few years. I think we have seen tremendous steps forward in that direction. I have seen the wonderful initiatives taken by the British Embassy in Belgrade to try to build ties with Serbia and the Serbian people. I know that many in London view Serbia as the key to a peaceful and prosperous Western Balkans.
I think that the vote to leave the EU was a disastrous decision. Indeed, the whole idea of a referendum was ill-conceived. People did not really understand the value of the EU or the nature of our membership back in 2016
How do you view the United Kingdom’s assessment that instability and crime reign only in the northern part of Kosovo, in Serb municipalities, which is implied by the UK Foreign Office’s official message for UK citizens not to travel to the area?
The existence of organised crime is certainly a concern in the north of Kosovo. However, if we are to be honest, it is a problem across the entire Western Balkans. I don’t get the impression that the northern part of Kosovo, or Serbian inhabited areas, are being singled out for special attention.
Turning to the UK’s own main issue, will the country formally leave the EU?
Overall, I think that the vote to leave the EU was a disastrous decision. Indeed, the whole idea of a referendum was ill-conceived. People did not really understand the value of the EU or the nature of our membership back in 2016. Apart from the decades of lies from much of the popular press, the whole Leave campaign was marked by serious irregularities. On top of this, the actual withdrawal process has been an utter mess for start to finish. The damage done to Britain’s standing in the world is immeasurable.
At this stage, it is almost impossible to predict what will happen. As a staunch Remainer who actively campaigned for the United Kingdom to stay a member of the European Union, I would like nothing more than to see Article 50 revoked. Failing that, I think there should be a referendum to confirm that people still want to leave the EU. I think a new vote is vital now that it is clear that the deal negotiated with the EU is vastly inferior to the relationship we already have with it as a member – especially if one considers the various important exemptions Britain has, such as not using the euro and not being a part of Schengen.
Given that we’ve discussed borders in the Balkans, do you consider that the UK’s exit from the EU – with or without agreement – will bring back to the agenda the issue of the border between the UK and Eire, or rather between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland?
Absolutely. In fact, I believe that if Brexit goes ahead we could very well see the break up of the United Kingdom in the next decade. Indeed, the big question to my mind is whether it will be Northern Ireland that leaves first or Scotland. For various historical and cultural reasons, if one goes then it seems all but certain that the other will follow.