EU accession and international disputes: Serbia’s and Kosovo’s future as member states of the Union

The dispute between Serbia and Kosovo over the northern region spurs many questions which need examination in order to determine the possibilities – or non-possibilities – for both Serbia’s and Kosovo’s future as member states of the European Union (EU). The dispute regards northern Kosovo, in which Kosovo argues for full territorial integrity and Serbia in turn maintains that ethnical Serbs in the region need to have – at the very least – autonomy from the rest of Kosovo. At the present, EU acts as a mediator between the two parties, with the last dialogue held on last Thursday. What needs to be examined is to what extent disputes, such as the one addressed by this reflection, affects the possible accession of Serbia and eventually Kosovo to the EU and how such disputes affect the EU’s enlargement policy.

When acceding to the EU one needs to take into account the different criteria the organization requires new members to fulfill, generally known as the Copenhagen criteria adopted in 1993 by the Copenhagen European Council. These criteria consist of political, economic and legal aspects. The political criterion requires that a state has stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, rule of law, human rights and protection of minorities. The economic criterion involves a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with the competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. The last criterion requires acceptance of the acquis communautaire and it lists inter alia what treaties and regulations a candidate needs to implement. The acquis to be implemented can be up to 80,000 pages or more, the process of becoming a member is therefore neither quick nor painless. More importantly these criteria also find support in the provisions of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU), including article 49 and 2.[1]

The Commission has a specific role in these respects. Article 49(1) TEU provides that the Council and Parliament approve new members “after consulting the Commission,” and the Commission in turn examines and reports on states’ future prospects for membership. In regard to Serbia and the EU’s enlargement policy, the Commission notes that Serbia is on the path of membership since it has already attained candidate status as of March 2012. However it has significant obstacles to overcome in the ambit of rule of law. The Commission makes clear that the primary obstacle for Serbia is the dispute with Kosovo, and that it will file a report “as soon as it will have assessed that Serbia has achieved the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria, in particular the key priority of taking steps towards a visible and sustainable improvement of relations with Kosovo” (see Enlargement Strategy, p. 26).

It is also important to note that the EU has concluded a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia, primarily in accordance with its competence under article 217 and 218 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). These provisions entitle the Union, as a subject of international law, to conclude treaties with other subjects (see, e.g., the Commission’s feasibility report regarding Kosovo). The SAA agreements are specifically made to customize the Balkan states upcoming accession to the EU. However the Serbian SAA, which covers more or less the criteria for accession, is not enough since the enlargement strategy also provides other conditions for a future accession of Serbia. The enlargement strategy specifically requires that Serbia needs to improve its relations with Kosovo in order for accession talks to be considered. Therefore, on the basis of what has just been presented, it can clearly be deduced that the EU requires Serbia not only to fulfill the criteria set up in the SAA agreement but also to resolve its dispute with Kosovo before becoming a member of the EU.

The situation of Kosovo is more complex. Although the EU does not officially adopt a position to whether or not Kosovo is a state, the acceptance of its statehood can easily be implied. First and foremost the Commission states that it is not impossible for the EU to conclude an SAA with Kosovo, despite the fact that five EU members do not recognize it as an independent state (prominently Cyprus, Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia). The Commission confirms that “an SAA can be concluded between the EU and Kosovo in a situation where EU Member States maintain different views on status.”  The Commission was quite clear to denote that the conclusion of an SAA would not be considered as a recognition of Kosovo’s statehood unless an explicit recognition is made in the terms of the agreement. Notwithstanding this statement, the EU’s acceptance of Kosovo statehood can still be implies considering the Commission’s statement:

“[A] visible and sustainable improvement in relations between Serbia and Kosovo is needed so that both can continue on their respective paths towards the EU, while avoiding that either can block the other in these efforts. This process should gradually result in the full normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo with the prospect of both able to fully exercise their rights and fulfil their responsibilities within the EU. Addressing the problems in northern Kosovo, while respecting the territorial integrity of Kosovo and the particular needs of the local population, will be an essential element of this process.”

The preferable outcome of a possible solution between Serbia and Kosovo is quite clear from the Commission’s standpoint. According to the enlargement strategy, the EU wants a larger territory, implicitly meaning that the EU wants more member states. This in turn means that Serbia will eventually have to recognize Kosovo as a state and Kosovo needs to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria, meaning that it will have to ensure protection of the Serbian minorities in northern Kosovo. The dispute therefore is clearly an obstacle for Serbia’s and Kosovo’s future accession to the EU as it is not in conformity with the enlargement strategy.

To resolve such disputes before starting accession talks with prospect states can be considered a wise approach by the Union. The EU’s prior acceptance of Cyprus despite the unresolved – and to date frozen – conflict it has with Turkey has led to inconvenience for the Union and it seems that the EU has learned from its past mistakes since it now requires a solution between Serbia and Kosovo before accession. Naturally, it is not illogical for the EU to seek peace between states before they join the same Union.

One can perceive the situation as paradoxical. It is quite feasible that the dispute needs to be resolved, because if both Serbia and Kosovo are going to accede it also means that Serbia eventually will have to recognize Kosovo. And Kosovo in turn cannot accede before Serbia, because if Serbia insists on its position of non-recognition then probably the five EU members not recognizing Kosovo will continue to do so and not ratify Kosovo’s accession treaty. Catherina Ashton, mediator between the parties and High representative of the Union, has held that the divide between the parties is “very narrow, but deep.” Ashton however, very diplomatically, expressed on 8 April 2013 that:

“I believe in a bright future for Serbia and Kosovo and I know that, however difficult the process has been, it unlocked the potential for people – especially in northern Kosovo – to have a better life. I hope that Kosovo and Serbia will not miss the opportunity to put the past behind them and move forward into the future. I hope I will be leading the discussion in the EU over the next few days in support of a real step forward by both Serbia and Kosovo towards their European future.”

A report from the Commission on Serbia’s future accession was recently delayed for reason of further talks between the parties which seems to have led to some conclusions. There have been a total of four progress reports since 2009, which all have recommended accession negotiations with Serbia. The Commission will now provide yet another report on the issue and it recently stated that it hopes the Council will act upon its recommendations. The latest negotiations held on 19 April, led to a “landmark” agreement which is an important step in normalizing relations between the two parties. President Barroso upheld the agreement as ‘historic’ in a press release from last Friday, and concluded that the agreement will be able to “pave the way” for the council to decide on the future accession of the two parties. Serbia however maintains that it will never recognize Kosovo as sovereign because the territory is the cradle of the Serb nation.

by Amanda Lorentz, Aljosa Noga and Sofia Persson Falkner


[1] Art. 2 in the TEU confirms general principles similar to those in the Copenhagen criteria.

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About eulaworebro

Örebro Universitet (Sweden)
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3 Responses to EU accession and international disputes: Serbia’s and Kosovo’s future as member states of the Union

  1. Petra Enmalm says:

    The “landmark agreement” signed on 19 April this year is clearly a significant step towards a normalised relationship between the two parties, as well as their future accession to the EU. However, the agreement still has to be ratified by both states, thus the actual implementation of the agreement remains to be seen. In fact, Serbs in the north of Kosovo have already rejected the deal. However, from a political point of view, the mere signing of the agreement is indeed momentous.
    The achievements concerning the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, as well as the general conditions for Union membership, shows that the EU still plays an important role in providing peace within the Union. The aim to provide peace for the Member States was one of the main goals from the outset, and the EU’s role in the process of resolving the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia on their way towards membership, shows that internal peace is still one of the Unions main missions. In addition, the EU’s enlargement policy shows the Union’s importance in the global arena, setting standards for prospecting states to live up to in order to become a Member State. Furthermore, one of the other main objectives of the EU is to ensure prosperity within the Union, thus accession to the EU can be a very important step for a state to improve its economic situation. Moreover, the Union’s enlargement policy promotes the prosperity objective by setting economic standards for accession. The EU’s enlargement policy might have a particular importance for the states in the Western Balkans, for whom there is a special process, which inter alia facilitates their transition to a market economy.
    Finally, the success with the agreement was a great triumph for the High Representative of the EU, Chaterine Ashton who, as mentioned in the post, has been mediating between the two states. Ashton has played a decisive role in the process, which shows that the High Representative has an important function in European diplomacy. This is particularly important since both Ashton herself, as well as the concept of a High Representative in the EU, has endured much critique.

  2. M.Ö says:

    The difficulties concerning the situation between Serbia and Kosovo and a possible accession for both parties to the EU lies primarily in the insecurity towards how the status of both parties are affected by there non-recognition of each other. It is not realistic for the EU to allow either party join before the situation is resolved. However, the only party that is currently on the route to join the EU is Serbia. To allow an accession from Serbia to the EU would also in a sense be contrary to very purpose of the union in the first place, since the original idea was that of maintaining peace in Europe. It would be contrary to this idea to accept a new member state that has a claim to a territory which it is not currently in control of. A situation in which a member state claims right to a territory in this way would place the EU in a peculiar situation. So that EU upholds a demand towards Serbia and also Kosovo to resolve the situation before it will be possible for them to join seems more than reasonable. From my point of view I can’t really see any other possible way for the EU to handle the situation. Especially since the the situation with Cyprus as a member state and it’s conflict with Turkey to this day remains somewhat unresolved.

  3. Hevi Dawody says:

    The European Union (the EU) has an interest to expand the amount of members within the Union, which is understandable in order to achieve the main goal of having an internal peace and prosperity within the whole Europe. However, the pathway of acceding to the EU should not be easily achieved, and is therefore the reason for why new members of the Union must fulfill the criteria mentioned in “the Copenhagen criteria” linked in the blog post. In order for the EU to be able of uniform diversity of interest between Member States, it is required that the future member is foremost a recognized state with stability in guaranteeing e.g. democracy, rule of law, and human rights protection in its national state. Those criteria are essential in order for having a Union with democracy and opportunity to lock all potential gaps for eventual future conflicts between different States. By analyzing the importance of the Copenhagen criteria one could easily understand why the EU is aiming first to require that the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo is solved before a complete accession for both parties. This requirement has further been strengthened through the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), linked in the blog post, which indicates that Serbia, despites the States path of membership and attained candidate status, must improve its relation with Kosovo. I consider these forms of agreement to be evident in order to prevent internal conflicts between Member States. In fact, the sui generis of the EU is unique. Furthermore, to have established a Union with Member States of diverse legal system and national interest, which until today have not acted in any conflict is remarkable. Hence, one should not consider the interest of expanding the Union with more acceded Member States before the interest of having States with stable relations towards one another. As mentioned in the blog post, the EU would probably not make the same mistake as it did with accepting the membership of Cyprus despite the unresolved conflict it had with Turkey. Nevertheless, the situation between Serbia and Kosovo is also quite complex, because Serbia is almost declared to be a full member of the EU and Kosovo is not recognized fully as an independent State by explicitly five EU members. This could results to superiority for Serbia where a larger amount of Member States speaks in favor of Serbia and its interest. However, if one believes in a unified Europe with a strong democratic continent, the expectation is that both Serbia and Kosovo strengthen their relationship, and as Catharina Ashton, mediator between the parties and High representative of the Union, states – there is a hope that Serbia and Kosovo would “not miss the opportunity to put the past behind them and move forward into the future”. This could essentially be realizations since the latest negotiation on 19 April presented a landmark agreement, which answers to the peaceful relations between the two parties. I, as many others, will continue to observe this event and hope for accession of more EU Member States.

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