An agreement between Serbia and Kosovo to settle a long-standing dispute over their mutual border is becoming more than an abstract idea. The countries’ leaders have held initial talks on a so-called border correction, a process that could offer a way to ease their accession to the European Union (EU). The conversation went well enough for Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo President Hashim Thaci to appear together week before last at a news conference in the Austrian town of Alpbach.
The shape of any would-be deal is unknown, as neither leader would say what he meant by “border correction”. A widely-held theory is that the parties are discussing a trade of Kosovo’s majority-Serb territory, located north of the Ibar River, for Serbia’s majority-Albanian Presevo area. There are good reasons to consider this kind of messy land swap a bad idea. But there is one argument that may outweigh any objection: Once all the parts of former Yugoslavia, as well as Albania, are in the EU, the significance of the specific demarcation of borders between them eventually will be erased.
The talks were facilitated by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency. He is eager to build a reputation as Europe’s indispensable bridge-builder, and is trying to capitalise on the momentum of the recent deal between the leaders of Greece and Macedonia to settle the dispute about Macedonia’s name.
Still, a territorial swap between Serbia and Kosovo would pose a number of problems. First, it would be a move towards more pure ethnic states in both Serbia and Kosovo. After the Yugoslav wars, the western powers that intervened to end the bloodshed hoped the nations that emerged from the conflicts would learn to respect their minorities. A redrawing of borders along ethnic lines would be an admission that these hopes were futile, and it could increase the temptation for minorities in other ex-Yugoslav states to secede. The danger is especially great in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Serb and Croat-dominated regions could gravitate towards Serbia and Croatia, and in Macedonia, which has a strong ethnic Albanian minority.
If a swap prompts Albanian nationalists in Macedonia and Kosovo to push harder for a “Greater Albania” and Serbs and Croats move to break up Bosnia, the danger of armed conflicts will re-emerge. That’s a situation no one wants. That’s why German Chancellor Angela Merkel opposes any deal that would involve border changes, even though US National Security Adviser John Bolton has said the Trump administration wouldn’t object to such an outcome.
There are other reasons a swap might not work. For one, it would be extremely messy. Most of Kosovo’s Serbs live south of the Ibar. Any transfer of land would put them at a disadvantage compared with Serbs from north Kosovo, and they’d be under pressure to leave.
Then there is Russia, which has consistently backed Serbia on the Kosovo issue, refusing to recognise the former province as a state or allow it to join the United Nations. But it has also indicated it would welcome any deal Serbia and Kosovo come to by themselves. A land swap would be, at least superficially, a favourable outcome for the Kremlin, which would gain a measure of legitimacy in pushing for similar solutions for the frozen conflicts it has created with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. That’s not an outcome most Western powers would be happy to accept.
The arguments in favour of a deal are equally powerful. Former Yugoslav countries have shown they are perfectly able to agree on borders. In March, the Kosovo parliament ratified a border demarcation agreement with Montenegro, which the EU required as a condition of allowing Kosovo citizens free travel. The deal was opposed by Kosovo nationalists who claimed it led to a territorial loss, but it happened nonetheless and all hell didn’t break loose.
That agreement could set a precedent for a more momentous deal between Serbia and Kosovo. Besides, if such a deal can smoothen the path into the EU for both countries — they would be required to bury the hatchet before they could join — the national jurisdiction over a few towns and villages would all but lose meaning within a generation’s life-span as borders between the EU members become irrelevant.
An agreement by the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to work jointly for accession to the EU would be proof the European project continues to exert enormous soft power. The role of Kurz, who has been widely criticised for forming a government with far-right populists, shows the EU’s resilience and determination to expand despite what may look like strong centrifugal forces. If Vucic and Thaci can find a way to an agreement, the EU will be more than compensated for the indignity of Brexit: It’ll be hard to dispute its ability to heal even relatively fresh war scars. And if there’s no deal yet, Europe can be patient, too.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business.