Nobody is denying that the EU plays a critical role in the future of the Western Balkans — but so does the United States.
When it comes to diplomacy, President Trump has, according to his critics, a habit of elevating appearances over substance. He lacks tact toward allies and too often he puts his vulnerable ego on display. As the Kosovo–Serbia summit at the White House unraveled over the course of this past week, all of these character flaws were on full display — by the European Union.
When the news of a White House summit between Serbia’s and Kosovo’s leaders, Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaçi, was initially announced, most Balkans watchers were bemused. The reaction from Europe was outright frosty. “A good agreement would bring Kosovo and Serbia closer to the EU and I don’t believe that such an agreement can be reached without the EU presence there,” said the EU’s special representative for dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, Miroslav Lajčák.
No wonder. Excluding the EU from the meeting was indeed a brazen move. It did not help that President Trump’s envoy for the Kosovo–Serbia talks, Richard Grenell, cuts a distinctly undiplomatic figure. During his two-year stint as ambassador to Germany, he alienated much of the country’s political class. When the summit was being prepared, he berated its critics on Twitter: “You don’t know what you are talking about. But you are so sure you do. Typical.”
However, bluster aside, there was merit to Grenell’s initiative. Since the largely aspirational Brussels Agreement (2013), which committed Kosovo and Serbia to a gradual “normalization” of their relationship, the EU has very little to show for its years of engagement in the region. A U.S.-led restart to the talks, organized around questions of economic integration, with the additional carrot provided by prospective U.S. investment, might have been maladroit, but it was not misguided.
After all, it is not the Trump administration’s fault that Serbia’s accession to the EU has stalled. Kosovo has yet to be granted visa-free access to EU member states, despite meeting the relevant criteria two years ago. The combination of an emphasis on rules and process on the one hand and broken promises on the other has fueled cynicism about the EU in both Pristina and Belgrade.
The frozen conflict has also provided an opening for Russia and China. Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić famously called European solidarity a “fairy tale” while praising Chinese medical assistance in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis. Russia, meanwhile, has firmly entrenched itself in Serbia’s energy sector, and its malign influence and meddling have successfully exploited the themes of Serbian, or Orthodox, victimhood. Illustrative of Russia’s interest in perpetuating the dysfunctional status quo, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in Belgrade recently that any agreement between Kosovo and Serbia had to be subject to approval by the U.N. Security Council — thereby reserving a veto power for Russia.
Since the summit was first announced, things took a downward turn quickly. On Wednesday, just as Thaçi was traveling to meet Vučić in Washington, the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, a court set up under the EU’s auspices, indicted him of war crimes. Grenell tweeted that Vučić would instead meet with Kosovo’s prime minister Avdullah Hoti. On Thursday, Hoti cancelled. And on Friday, he and Vučić appeared in Brussels, hosted by the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen.
While few expected breakthroughs at the canceled summit in Washington, the Friday meetings in Brussels, organized ostentatiously as the EU’s riposte to the U.S. initiative, revolved around platitudes. “Grateful [Hoti] chose Brussels for his first trip abroad. We will support Kosovo in the necessary reforms on its path to the EU and in post-pandemic recovery,” von der Leyen tweeted after their meeting. In Serbia, in turn, “broad dialogue with all political forces is needed to move ahead with reforms.” Perhaps the upcoming summit in Paris, organized by French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel will yield more-impressive results, but we are not holding our breath.
When she took over as the president of the new European Commission last year, von der Leyen promised a “geopolitical commission.” Yet, for that, more is needed than just flexing muscles to derail a U.S.-led initiative without offering an alternative in its stead. Nobody is denying that the EU plays a critical role in the future of the Western Balkans — but so does the United States. Progress in the region, whether it was the Dayton Accords, ending violence in Kosovo, or maintaining its security, has come invariably from cooperation between the two — not from one undercutting the other.
The United States and the European Union share the same basic objectives in the Western Balkans: that the region be peaceful, democratic, and economically successful, grounded in the rule of law, and not a playground for revisionist powers such as China and Russia. Who gets the credit for breaking the current deadlock during the short window afforded by the recent elections in Serbia ought to be far less important. To see the EU go out of its way to preserve the current stasis for the fear of somebody else’s taking credit for eventual progress is disappointing — and positively Trumpian.
Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Ivana Stradner is a Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.