EU 610 mln rail grant likely a welcome carrot in the Kosovo-Serbia normalization game

In a not so surprising move, a EUR 610 mln grant was green-lighted in order that Serbia build a fast railway to interconnect the Balkans—with the deal inked not only together with the EU enlargement commissioner, Oliver Varhelvi, standing by, but also with the rubber stamping taking place on the same day as Serbia endorsed a deal to eventually recognize the existence of Kosovo as a state.

If that sounds like quite a bit to digest, don’t be fooled. It is. Yet it seems clear that the EU’s waving of a big stick—and with said waving having come mainly from Germany and France—is simply not as effective as handing over a carrot or two.

There is little question that the 208-kilometer line will be a massive boost to Serbia, as well as to the Balkans. With an overall price tag of a whopping EUR 2.7 bln, the EU is clearly banking on its own benefits as well.

Yet the rail line has been in jeopardy—as has been peace in the Balkans—with Kosovo-Serbia headbutting having reached a fever pitch in January of this year. This led to a buildup of Serbian troops on the border and Kosovo government accusations that Wagner mercenaries were already active and behind protests in North Kosovo.

Enter the US and EU… again. The former appeared to press on fiery Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to at least delay demands if not tone down rhetoric. The EU in the end did not turn its back on Serbia—despite endless complaints—and what appears to have been a strategic change led negotiations away from complete EU accession derailment if Serbia failed to comply to a show-and-do series of benefits should Serbia fall in line.

By the end of February both Serbia and Kosovo voiced support of an 11-point normalization agreement, which de facto does mean the recognition of Kosovo as a state, and which, hopefully de facto means Serbia’s EU accession process is back on.

Likely the latter is the case, as Serbia has been benefiting not only from EU backed FDI, but also from investment out of China and Russia—and both the EU and the US would like to negate the danger of increased influence by both states.

Which means the week of Feb. 27 might well be the first steps to achieving just that. Still, no one involved expects the next year or even the next month leading up to continued talks in March to be easy going, but there does appear to now be a way forward.

Baby steps, people. Baby steps.

Photo of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in the Pentagon by Leon E. Panetta, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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