Europe Worries Trump May Wreck Chunk of Merkel’s Legacy

(Bloomberg) -- European Union diplomats are furious that President Donald Trump shut them out of talks between Serbia and Kosovo, fearing not only that EU interests will be sidelined but that the two countries’ long-term interests will suffer.

Three officials familiar with the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the Balkans said the transatlantic snub ignores years of EU efforts at reconciliation between the two sides and they suspect the main focus for U.S. Special Envoy Richard Grenell is delivering a quick win for his boss. Ahead of November elections, it could burnish his chances to be secretary of state in a second Trump term.

Cutting the EU out of the process now makes little sense because the countries’ prospects are bound up with their efforts to join the 27-nation bloc, the diplomats said.

The U.S. intervention amounts to a diplomatic grab in an area previously occupied by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who spearheaded talks between Serbia and Kosovo and championed EU expansion in the Balkans.

Grenell has built his international reputation on making life difficult for Merkel’s government.

As U.S. ambassador in Berlin until earlier this month, he was at the center of efforts to pressure Merkel on a range of topics from defense spending, Iran and trade to Germany’s relationship with Russia. He came to be seen by many German officials as a symbol of the deteriorating transatlantic relationship.

Yet after years of largely failed EU efforts, Grenell’s new approach may break loose some progress, according to one U.S. official who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations. The person said the EU has struggled to be effective since at least 2013 given that five of its member states still don’t recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty.

On Monday, Grenell announced a June 27 White House meeting between the former wartime foes while the EU point person Miroslav Lajcak was en route to Kosovo in his own bid to jumpstart negotiations. Lajcak, the Slovak foreign minister who leads EU efforts on the issue, hasn’t been invited to the talks.

European Parliament’s standing rapporteurs for Kosovo and Serbia urged leaders from both sides to engage with Lajcak.

“There is no alternative to the European Union facilitated dialogue because both Serbia and Kosovo are European countries with a clear European perspective and both Serbia and Kosovo have committed to joining the EU,” they said in a statement late on Tuesday.

The competing overtures underscore a growing chasm between the U.S. and Europe, which is struggling to find its place in a world with China emerging as a global superpower and traditional ties with the U.S. under Trump fraying.

Germany and France moved forward this week with a blueprint for the EU to boost its joint defense capabilities, just as Trump threatened to withdraw almost 10,000 U.S. troops from Germany.

Losing control over Balkan negotiations would be a particular blow for Merkel, who has invested much time in the region. Over the weekend, the German Chancellery launched into a flurry of diplomacy between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Avdullah Hoti, Kosovo’s new prime minister, one envoy said.

The agreement to meet follows both sides suspending rival campaigns over the international recognition of Kosovo, which split unilaterally from Serbia in 2008 almost a decade after NATO bombing forced Serb troops out of its territory.

‘Battle of the Elephants’

Serbia, which will hold elections on Sunday, insists Kosovo is its historic heartland and refuses to accept its secession. Belgrade has relied on Russia and China to block Kosovo’s admission into United Nations and other international bodies and has intensively worked to reverse the recognition of some countries.

Grenell oversaw an agreement in February under which Serbia and Kosovo agreed to develop road and rail links to boost economic cooperation before resolving their long-lasting enmity.

“If either side is unsatisfied with the June 27 discussions then they will go back to the status quo after they leave Washington,” he said on Twitter. “We must first make progress on growing the economies.”

The EU and the U.S. were also at odds over the ouster of former Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti in March. While German and French ambassadors spoke out against the no-confidence vote that toppled him, their U.S. colleague said he was pleased to see the motion taking place. Kurti slammed Grenell for helping orchestrate his dismissal.

Serbia’s president said that he aimed to maintain good relations with both the U.S. and the EU and hinted at the uncomfortable position that Grenell’s invitation had placed him in.

“We’re not going to fight with Germany or America,” Vucic said. “It’s important that in the battle of the elephants we remain unhurt.”

Still, he ruled out discussing the recognition of Kosovo, underscoring that, despite the U.S. attempts to bring the two sides together, Serbia and its neighbor remain at odds over the linchpin of their dispute.

“That will not be the topic, nor will we allow it to become the topic” at the White House, Vucic said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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