Brussels has prepared six billion euros for the region, what will Serbia and Kosovo have to fulfill?
Although Brussels emphasizes that the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo is not the 'alpha and omega' of their European integration, it will be the main measure when deciding how much money from the new EU development package for the Western Balkans, worth six billion euros, Belgrade and Pristina will be entitled to, according to Kosovo Online interlocutors.
Such messages have already been indirectly sent by EU officials, stating that there will be no funds for Belgrade or Pristina, even if they implement reforms if progress in the dialogue is lacking. If one side meets the prerequisites and the other does not, financial resources will be transferred to someone else.
The ambitious plan of the European Union, which was one of the main reasons for the recent visit of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to the region, envisages offering two billion in non-repayable funds to the Western Balkans and four billion in the form of favorable loans or capital investments in the period from 2024 to 2027. The goal is for the candidates to participate in many EU policies and programs even before becoming formal members of the European bloc. Payments under the four-year plan are scheduled every six months, and the first installment is expected in the summer of next year.
The money, according to the European Commission's plan, is intended to help the region strengthen four pillars: economic integration into the EU's single market, economic integration within the Western Balkans through a common regional market, acceleration of fundamental reforms, which also means the rule of law, aiding in attracting foreign direct investment and strengthening regional stability. The fourth pillar is an increase in financial assistance to support reforms.
Concrete examples of the results of this plan include the establishment of the so-called green lanes at border crossings, where goods pass more quickly with faster customs procedures and the abolition of roaming charges for mobile phones and the internet. There will also be facilitations for young people who will be able to study more easily in EU countries if this plan is implemented.
Helena Ivanov, a Research Associate at the Henry Jackson Research Center, says that the EU's six billion euro aid package for the Western Balkans, regarding Belgrade and Pristina, should be viewed from the perspective of Brussels' new 'carrot and stick' approach, which will be activated depending on the progress of the two sides in the dialogue.
"Such a large amount of money is always needed because two out of six billion euros are non-repayable assistance, and the remaining four billion are extremely favorable loans. In such an economy, such financial aid is beneficial to every country, and I believe that the EU will, of course, use those funds in that way—if progress occurs in the normalization process, the money will be directed to the appropriate accounts. If one or both sides become uncooperative negotiators and hinder the normalization process, I believe that access to these funds will then be reduced or eliminated," Ivanov notes.
Another perspective from which to view the new EU aid package, according to Ivanov, relates to the entire Western Balkans.
"The EU accession process in the Western Balkans has been greatly extended. The trust that any Western Balkan country will join the EU in the near future is at an exceptionally low level. Therefore, I think this package is a way to keep those countries interested in joining and to keep the support and aid that the EU provides to the Western Balkans visible and in the foreground. However, of course, what is lacking is the key thing, which is actual accession or a specific date when we will really join the EU", Ivanov says.
She adds that when we look at the communication in recent months, unrelated to the new aid package, the EU consistently repeats to high officials from Belgrade and Pristina, as well as to the public in Serbia and Kosovo, that only accession to the Union and access to funds are conditioned on both sides continuing to cooperate, being constructive negotiators, and playing a constructive role in the normalization process.
"I am confident that even this latest package is not an exception in that sense, that the conditions to enjoy its benefits have been clearly stated", she says.
However, whether these messages will have an effect, Ivanov emphasizes, depends mostly on the EU.
"The main problem is that there are actually no sanctions. If we look at the negotiating process, especially in the last year, something comes out of the dialogue, the parties agree on something, and something is verbally accepted, however, nothing is implemented in practice. Often, a step back is taken after the negotiations, and we see rounds of escalation. The last round of negotiations even ended with Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti leaving the meeting and rejecting the proposal made by the EU. The reason why something like this is possible is that no one is sanctioned. You say you will do something, then you don't do it, the EU issues some sharper criticism and tones, maybe some very mild sanctions that are essentially not felt at all. So, why would anyone in such a situation, knowing that they don't have to fulfill what they don't want to fulfill and won't be sanctioned for it, have the motivation to fulfill something", Ivanov emphasizes.
In order for this policy to have any effect, she continues, it is really important that the EU, if one party does not fulfill what it said it would, ensures that this party does not receive assistance.
"Otherwise, we will have the same scenarios we have had so far", Ivanov points out.
It is important for all Western Balkan countries to meet the criteria for European integration, and it seems that the most problematic case is between Serbia and Kosovo. Their commitment to peace and stability, as well as to the rule of law and public administration reform, will be the main criteria they must fulfill to benefit from the six billion euro aid and support package announced by the EU for the region, according to Afrim Hoti, a Professor of international law from Pristina.
As he states for Kosovo Online, it is obvious that in the circumstances of the war between Russia and Ukraine, the EU pays more attention to the Western Balkans, and this aid and support package is heading in that direction.
He believes that the speed of reaching agreements and progress in normalization will be crucial for Serbia and Kosovo to obtain these funds.
"It is crucial. Because whenever the situation in the Western Balkans is discussed, the relations between Serbia and Kosovo must be mentioned. No one can imagine stability in this part of Europe without the full normalization of relations between the two countries. So any kind of EU aid or support will not be visible and realistic without full normalization of relations. In that sense, I think that in the coming weeks and months, there will be pressure on both sides, both Kosovo and Serbia, to achieve normalization as soon as possible, followed by the support mentioned by European Commission President von der Leyen and other EU officials", Hoti says.
He adds that in the event that either party fails to fulfill its obligations, the money and assistance will be suspended.
"This is happening now to Kosovo, which is facing EU sanctions. But it seems that the same could be applied to Serbia, not only because of the lack of normalization but also because of the absence of responsibility and loyalty when it comes to the foreign policy Serbia is currently implementing. Also, because of the events since the end of September in Banjska", Hoti concludes.
The key factor for Serbia and Kosovo to receive funds from the EU's development aid package for the Western Balkans will be the normalization of relations between the two sides, according to Igor Novakovic from the Center for International and Security Affairs.
Novakovic points out for Kosovo Online that, in addition to that, progress will be measured in areas crucial to the accession process of the entire Western Balkans to the European Union's single market and the creation of a single market in the region.
"In the case of Serbia and Kosovo, the emphasis will also be on the normalization process, i.e., on fulfilling what was agreed in Brussels and Ohrid earlier this year. It has already been said that all candidates and potential candidates will have to present individual reports, or plans for the implementation of reforms until 2027, next year. I don't believe that in the case of normalization, this will have to be included in the plan, but in the case of Serbia, it will be measured through Chapter 35, or through the dynamics of negotiations and implementation", Novakovic says.
He points out that it has already been announced that if reforms are not implemented, the money will not be disbursed.
"In other words, money is disbursed or given only after reforms have been implemented. So I believe that will be the case for both Belgrade and Pristina. I don't see the possibility of any big surprises there", he says.
However, Novakovic raises the question of whether the amount that the EU has allocated for the Western Balkans is sufficient.
"Overall, it sends a good signal to the Western Balkans. But it seems to me that this is an interim step since there are much more favorable signals going to the former members of the Eastern Partnership, namely Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia", Novakovic concludes.