Mercron’s Balkan breakdown

Failure to break impasse between Kosovo and Serbia underscores EU’s foreign policy failings.

BERLIN — Emmanuel Macron was on the verge of losing it.

After trying (and failing) for hours to prod and coax Kosovan Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj to accept a compromise to defuse his small country’s worsening dispute with Serbia, the French president resorted to his signature bluntness.

“You’re in no position to ask for anything,” Macron, raising his voice, told Haradinaj as a group of other leaders from the region looked on, according to two people who witnessed the encounter in Berlin.

So it goes for Europe’s would-be Balkan peacemakers.

Macron visited the German capital this week to co-host a summit of Western Balkan leaders alongside Angela Merkel aimed at jumpstarting talks between Serbia and Kosovo. Frustrated by the EU’s failure to forge a deal to ease the tensions, Merkel and Macron decided to take matters into their owns hands.

Participants at the end of the Western Balkan Conference in Berlin | Pool photo by Mika Schmidt via EPA

By the time the summit adjourned in the early hours of Tuesday, they probably wished they hadn’t. Instead of presenting a breakthrough, Merkel and Macron unwittingly put Europe’s dysfunctional diplomacy on public display. The summit highlighted divisions not just between Kosovo and Serbia, but also between Paris and Berlin and between the EU's member countries and its foreign policy apparatus in Brussels.

Tensions between the Balkan neighbors flared anew recently after Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, imposed 100 percent tariffs on Serbian goods in response to Belgrade’s efforts to block international recognition for Pristina. Serbia promptly made clear it would take no further part in an EU-sponsored dialogue between the two sides until the tariffs are lifted.

Going into this week’s meeting, neither side appeared willing to budge, prompting some diplomats to privately question whether the summit should go forward at all. Such high-level summits are usually carefully choreographed affairs, preceded by months of diplomatic spade work during which officials negotiate the contours of agreements, which then go to the leaders for the final touches. Big countries often use such meetings, which offer the leaders of smaller countries coveted international limelight, as an incentive to make compromises.

In this case, the participants could not even agree on the broad “conclusions” circulated by Berlin and Paris in the days leading up to the summit.

Kosovo's Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj | Armend Nimani/AFP via Getty Images

Despite the discord, both Macron and Merkel hoped to use the momentum of the deal between Greece and North Macedonia over the latter’s official name to achieve some sort of breakthrough on Serbia and Kosovo.

They were disappointed. The meeting — which included leaders from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia and was also meant to focus on the region’s EU aspirations — quickly became bogged down in the quagmire between Serbia and Kosovo, prompting criticism that far from improving the situation, Berlin and Paris’ ham-handed diplomacy had only made matters worse.

“The only happy person was Mogherini,” said one participant, referring to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

By staging the summit outside the aegis of the EU — which has its own process meant to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia — France and Germany were effectively upstaging Brussels. Though Mogherini, who arrived all smiles and sporting a deep tan after the Easter break, was invited to the Berlin meeting, she was given a bit part.

Critics charge that for most of her term, which began in 2014, the Italian paid little attention to the Balkans but has belatedly become more active as the region is the focus of Great Power politics, with China and Russia seeking to assert influence there.

So far she has little to show for her efforts, however. Mogherini has come under fire for failing to break the impasse between Kosovo and Serbia, despite months of trying. She has also created problems by embracing a plan that would allow for a so-called land swap, the exchange of territories along ethnic lines, between the two countries. While some in both Belgrade and Pristina support the idea, Merkel is deeply opposed amid concerns that it would set a dangerous precedent in a region with a dark history of ethnic cleansing.

Merkel and Macron in Berlin | Filip Singer/EFE via EPA

France meanwhile has been much more ambiguous about the land swap idea. In a statement before the summit, Macron said outsiders would not seek to impose solutions on the region and spoke of "no taboos."

Officials at the Elysée Palace did not respond to requests for comment on Macron's interactions at the summit and whether he supports the land swap.

Summit swerve

The summit started to go off the rails almost as soon as it began.

The Kosovo delegation was divided over whether to accept a compromise. President Hashim Thaçi supported some form of deal, but the tariffs fall under the purview of Haradinaj, his political rival.

Haradinaj, a former guerrilla commander, made it clear his government wouldn’t drop the tariffs until Serbia, which still considers Kosovo a renegade province, formally recognizes its sovereignty.

During a break, as members of the other delegations lingered on one of the balconies in Berlin’s chancellory, Merkel and Macron took Haradinaj aside.

They urged him to drop the tariffs for six months to allow negotiations for a broader deal to go forward, holding out the carrot of visa-free travel for Kosovars traveling to the EU’s Schengen zone. (Though Kosovo has fulfilled EU requirements for visa liberalization, a major priority for the small country, final approval has been held up by some member states.)

Haradinaj wouldn’t back down.

“I want recognition,” he said, according to a person who witnessed the exchange. Haradinaj didn’t respond to requests to comment for this article.

A big reason for the Kosovar prime minister’s stubbornness is that his stance enjoys strong support at home.

Most observers believe that if Serbia ever agrees to recognize Kosovo, it could only come at the end of a process that would offer a major prize for Belgrade, such as EU membership.

Merkel spoke to Haradinaj of the importance of compromise in European politics and patience, invoking the example of German reunification, which few thought would ever be possible in the years before the Berlin Wall fell.

“I don’t want to wait 20 years,” Haradinaj responded.

At one point, Macron took the Kosovar, who became fluent in French after working as a bouncer in Switzerland in the 1990s, aside to speak to him privately.

Haradinaj held firm, continuing to demand Serbia recognize Kosovo first.

Merkel and Macron, recognizing they were getting nowhere, eventually adjourned the meeting. Merkel’s office put out a joint Franco-German statement saying that Serbia and Kosovo had agreed to work “constructively” to normalize their relations.

If only.

Serbian President Aleksandar Alexander Vučić and PM Ana Brnabić | John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

There was no mention of the two sides actually restarting their frozen dialogue.

A big reason for the Kosovar prime minister’s stubbornness is that his stance enjoys strong support at home.

“It’s made him very popular,” said Milan Nic, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), who covers the region.

The question is how long he can keep it up.

Merkel and Macron appear intent on forcing Haradinaj to back down. The two tentatively scheduled another summit with the feuding parties in early July in Paris.

Like the EU, the U.S. has been pressuring Kosovo to drop the tariffs. The Kosovo delegation met with Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, before the summit and he repeated that message.

About the only issue the fractious Kosovo politicians seem to agree on is that the U.S., which led the NATO bombings in 1999 that paved the way for Kosovo’s independence, should become more involved in the process.

The U.S. is more amenable to a land swap if that’s what the parties decide. The idea has been supported by Serbian President Alexander Vučić and Thaçi in the past, though they have since equivocated. Haradinaj, who opposes any change of borders, claimed after the summit that the issue was “off the table,” but other participants denied that.

“Without the U.S., we can never have any dialogue, negotiations or any agreement,” Thaçi told Reuters TV in Berlin. “The EU is not united in this process.”