Trump Team Wades Again Into Balkan Mediation as EU Leads Efforts

Serbia and Kosovo accepted an invitation by President Donald Trump’s envoy to meet at the White House next month even as the European Union leads the efforts to reconcile the wartime foes amid recurring U.S. attempts to mediate as well.

Richard Grenell, Trump’s point-man for the region, scheduled the meeting for Sept. 2, more than two months after a similar US initiative fell through when an EU-backed court unveiled war crimes charges against Kosovo President Hashim Thaci. Top officials of the neighbors later convened in Brussels to jumpstart long-stalled negotiations in talks both sides described as “difficult.” They’re expected to convene again under EU auspices on Sept. 7.

“Trump is looking for a success on the foreign affairs front because his chances for re-election have seriously declined with the pandemic,” said Vuk Vuksanovic, an international relations researcher at the London School of Economic’s foreign-policy think tank. “He’s trying to score some more points” after announcing the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates Thursday.

Kosovo’s ethnic-Albanian majority is demanding recognition as a sovereign state after unilaterally declaring independence in 2008, almost a decade after a NATO bombing campaign led by the U.S. forced Serb troops from its territory. Serbia has vowed to never relinquish what it considers its historic heartland, which includes ancient holy sites of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Both aspire to join the EU but must settle differences to qualify for membership in the world’s biggest trading bloc.

Economic Focus

“Serbia is in no position to turn down talks,” President Aleksandar Vucic said in live broadcast just hours after Grenell made the invitation. The meeting may focus on “economic opening, free flow of goods, people, capital and services,” he said.

There was no immediate comment from his Kosovo counterpart Thaci, who plans to step down if the war-crimes charges are confirmed. Kosovo Premier Avdullah Hoti confirmed he’ll attend the Washington meeting.

The EU has its own mediator for the dispute. Grenell, who’d served as U.S. ambassador to Berlin where he often irked German officials, has sought to portray the U.S. initiative as complementing rather than rivaling EU efforts to stabilize the continent’s most volatile corner.

The bloc has been reluctant to fully integrate six Balkan nations seeking to join. There’s been no official proposal that would end historic hostilities between Serbs and Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority.

“The European Union may be running out of sticks and carrots for the Balkan nations without a clear enlargement plan,” Vuksanovic said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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