While Serbia and Kosovo’s leaders, Aleksandar Vučić and Albin Kurti, respectively, formally agreed on the EU-facilitated agreement already in February this year, not even a month later, they reached the agreement on the implementation annex as the most vital part for any further progress within the process. One could claim that a high-level meeting in Ohrid exceeded initial expectations with its promising outcomes since anything similar would have been unthinkable just a year ago. However, local experts argue the deal itself does not offer any unique solution as the most sensitive points remain the same, as in the previous failed agreements. In a similar way, local leaders face the same challenges. In other words, they need to compromise on their long-term positions while promoting the current deal as an utterly exceptional opportunity demanding crucial compromises. Moreover, the deeply rooted narratives and the lack of reconciliation between the two nations make the potential reconciliation even more challenging. At the same time, the absence of internally driven motivation and a bottom-up approach to resolving the dispute has been confirmed by the situation on the ground while tensions in North Kosovo flared again.
On the contrary, the perceptible difference lies within the international community’s involvement in the normalisation process. An entirely new element of the agreement is also forming a monitoring committee chaired by the EU representative. The decision to take total control of the process as a guarantor of the deal implementation might be explained by factors such as the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the current geopolitical situation and the consequent need to stabilise the neighbouring region. The Western Balkans have always been an imaginary battlefield for foreign powers to gain influence in the region. In fact, it is clear that neither the EU nor the US is willing to stay aside, especially under the current circumstances. Regardless of the credibility and guarantees they bring into the process, the substantial engagement might also raise concerns considering the considerably low trust towards these actors, particularly within Serbian society. If the implementation fails, the EU risks further damage to its reputation and a decrease in pro-EU sentiment. Given this, the EU can not refrain from seizing its efforts to achieve at least partial implementation of the agreed obligations with tangible impact.
As an interpreter of the agreement, the EU unequivocally chose the carrot-and-stick approach. The approach’s ‘reward and punishment’ parts are mostly interlinked with Kosovo’s and Serbia’s ambitions to join the EU. Hence, fulfilling the agreed obligations will become an integral and binding part of the accession process and will determine the overall pace of the negotiations. If Serbia and Kosovo do not prove sufficient progress under the EU’s approach, they may lose their current benefits, such as a visa-free regime or financial resources. However, there are better strategies than threats, mainly when the process is driven by external actors and the willingness for change does not come from the public. Local leaders tend to use the latter as a strategic weapon to neglect their responsibility.
Yet the EU plans to reward ‘good behavior’ – in this case, the agreement’s implementation. However, there is little left to offer since the promise of a clear membership perspective is losing its credibility over time. While the perspective of EU membership, even candidacy for Kosovo, is too distant for now, Serbia displays the lowest support for EU integration among all Western Balkan countries. According to the latest Balkan Barometer, only 38 % of respondents claimed that EU membership would be good for Serbia’s economy. Experts do not expect any concessions or shortcuts for Serbia to induce the acceleration of the integration process without reaching progress in other negotiation chapters, especially those embodied in the ‘Fundamentals’ cluster or under Chapters 30 and 31. Considering that the EU backed the talks between Kosovo and Serbia for almost a decade without achieving any noteworthy advancement, experts remain unconvinced that the situation might change without introducing a clear strategy and precisely defined consequences in case of non-fulfilment or violation of stipulated obligations.