Following the announcement of the third meeting of the final phase of EU-led negotiations, due to take place on in Brussels on Friday (7 September), public discourse on the issue has intensified.
The dialogue, aimed at delivering a final peace deal between Kosovo and Serbia and thus enable their respective European paths, is being led by the two parties, but it belongs to everybody.
ll citizens – whether active in civil society, academia, the private sector or just ordinary citizens – have an important contribution to make.
But it is also important not to lose sight of the complexity and stakes of a final deal.
Talk of principles and red lines risk us all missing the wood for the trees.
Given all that is at stake, a deal – any final deal – will be painfully difficult to reach. The only way to get there is by adopting a more pragmatic approach.
Kosovo and Serbia are longstanding adversaries, with a history of bloody conflict.
Profound disagreement between the two is not something that belongs to the past, it exists today and it permeates every aspect and every person on either side of the border.
Agreeing to a compromise does not fit the nationalist narrative in either country and will not be favoured by sizeable portions of the populations for that reason.
However, that does not tell the full story.
In Kosovo, our young state was founded on some particular principles, like territorial integrity and multi-ethnicity.
That is why any movement which may look like it endangers these principles will be met with resistance.
Some in Kosovo may be content with the current 116 recognitions and with membership in a few international organisations, living in hope that more will follow without any deal.
Then there are those who benefit from the current situation.
Normalised, conflict-free relations between the two will not be beneficial to them, and that is why they will invest all their energies in opposing a potential deal, whatever its content.
But in fact, the current limbo serves no one’s true interest.
For those that live in hope that the status quo will bring about change, the outlook is bleak.
No one should fear an agreed solution
There has been no movement by the five non-recognising EU members towards recognition in the past 10 years.
Anyone following developments will know that Kosovo-Serbia relations in the current dialogue have plateaued and unless the core of the problem is tackled not much more will change.
The EU has made it clear that neither Serbia nor Kosovo will join the EU before complete normalisation of relations and the Russian veto in the UN Security Council is blocking several important developmental processes in Kosovo.
In Serbia, the financial investment to undermine Kosovo’s independence and authority in the north of Kosovo is considerable.
Efforts to keep Kosovo out of international fora serve to divert attention from the real internal questions relevant of concern to citizens there.
The frozen conflict has also frozen EU membership for both countries.
The problems between the countries in the Balkans are rooted in divisions and disagreements and not the other way around.
Lately, signals by both Kosovo and Serbia and comments by world powers, have led to wide-spread cautioning against any tinkering with borders due to a possible domino effect in the region, which is dotted with territorially-clustered minorities.
However, a potential deal between Kosovo and Serbia involving border adjustments would be mutually agreed in a peaceful manner and would not be made along ethnic lines.
It can only go through if it has sufficient popular support.
The legacy of such a deal would be less about its content and more about the enforcement of mutual agreement as the cornerstone of international peace and stability.
The lack of wars in the Western Balkans today is understood by many as a sign of stability.
While there is some truth in this argument, everyone knows that existing disputes remain a powerful source of instability.
As a matter of fact, the mother of instability is the lack of a final deal between Kosovo and Serbia.
What better time?
The circumstances have never been more conducive to finding a compromise.
The power of the renewed and strengthened European perspective for the Western Balkans, first announced by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in his 2017 state of the union speech, then followed up by the commission strategy in February and EU member states’ conclusions, is a strong incentive to act now rather than to wait and see.
This renewed perspective has already borne fruit in the form of the Skopje-Athens agreement on the name issue.
Kosovo and Serbia could be next.
The momentum is there and neither country can afford to lose it now. Serbia and Kosovo have hard proof that advancement in the relations to one another will lead to gains on their EU paths.
For Kosovo, progress on the dialogue has helped the conclusion of the EU-Kosovo stabilisation and association agreement, which entered into force in April 2016.
For Serbia, it allowed the opening of accession negotiations in June 2013.
Now the final deal is a chance to resolve all issues between the two states once and for all.
This means leaving the past behind; replacing regional divisions and barriers with regional cooperation and openness.
But as it often happens in life, opportunities come with an expiry date.
The current commission mandate runs out at the end of next year.
Before that, the European Parliament election campaign will take attention away from our region.
Meanwhile, the outcome of the elections may give us a more inward-looking EU that is far less willing than the current one to make progress on the enlargement agenda.
Everyone will benefit from an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.
The more the region progresses towards the goal of EU membership, the better it is for us all because it means more stability, more sustainable peace, regional cooperation, more foreign investment and greater welfare.
The countries of the region need to leverage whatever influence they have on their neighbours to support any potential deal agreed by the two sides because its success is vital for the long-term peace and stability of the Western Balkans as a whole.
Everyone benefits from that.
For the EU too, it is very important to reach a final outcome of this engagement, which has spanned two mandates of the EU institutions.
Its ability to deliver on this point is not only a measure of its weight in the Western Balkans, but also something to measure its ability and influence as a global actor.
Bekim Collaku is chief of staff to the president of Kosovo