After 15 years of tensions and conflict, Friday’s accord normalising relations between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo is a landmark. If it holds, it could resolve one of the big outstanding issues from the 1990s Yugoslav wars. It shows EU foreign policy can yield results. It is a personal success, too, for Lady Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who brokered the talks.
The accord makes clear that the eurozone crisis has not dimmed the EU’s allure. Without the promise of getting on the road to membership, Serbia would never have engaged. Both sides have given meaningful concessions; a Belgrade government with former nationalists in top roles, and one in Pristina headed by a one-time Kosovar rebel commander.
Serbia concedes Pristina’s legal authority over all of Kosovo, though not recognising it as a state. In return, 50,000 Serbs in northern Kosovo will gain broad autonomy in policing, justice, education, healthcare and culture. Neither state will block the other’s progress towards EU integration.
Sizeable hurdles still lie ahead. Nationalists in Serbia are calling the agreement a betrayal and holding protests. Serbs in northern Kosovo may also feel they have been sold short; extremists on either side could still try to sabotage the agreement. Implementing it will require both communities to find the spirit of reconciliation and co-operation that those in, say, Northern Ireland achieved after the Good Friday agreement.
Serbia’s path to EU membership, moreover, remains long and tortuous; even a 2020 entry target looks optimistic. Brussels is right to recommend Belgrade should now get a start date for entry talks. But Serbia has enormous work ahead in economic and legal reforms, and tackling corruption and crime.
Romania and Bulgaria showed that the transformation must be concluded before EU entry; both are seen as having joined prematurely in 2007, then struggled to complete reforms. Other EU members will not admit Serbia until they are convinced it is ready.
Without lowering the bar, however, Brussels and EU states should find ways to maintain the momentum and incentives for Serbia and Kosovo to continue moving closer to membership. Other ex-Yugoslav states and Balkan countries such as Albania are following their progress keenly. If the prospect of eventual EU entry is to remain a spur to reform across Europe’s poorest corner, the Kosovo accord must be seen not as an end of a process, but a beginning.
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