Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger represented the EU in the Troika negotiations in 2007. He chaired the Munich Security Conference From 2008 to 2022 and currently serves as President of the Munich Security Conference Foundation.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has caused existing European security architecture to fall apart, provoking fundamental changes in foreign and defense policies across the Continent.
Confronted with terminating its long-standing energy and commercial ties with Russia as a result, Germany was probably more deeply affected than most. And it had to adapt to the new era by adopting a Zeitenwende, or turning point — a radical departure from its past policies and principles.
A similar Zeitenwende is urgently needed right now in the southeast of Europe too.
Western Balkan countries have had to live with their unresolved issues and disputes for far too long. The time for bold decisions to overcome past obstacles has come, leading the way toward regional cooperation and future membership in the European Union.
However, the full potential for Western Balkan growth and prosperity can only be realized if the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo is finally put on a stable and cooperative basis.
Over a decade-and-half ago, during the Troika negotiations in 2007, a proposal for a “Basic Agreement” between Belgrade and Pristina was developed. The text was based on the philosophy of the 1972 Basic Treaty between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, which aimed to establish good neighborly relations among both states and allowed comprehensive pragmatic cooperation while sidestepping certain issues — like full mutual diplomatic recognition — that appeared unresolvable at the time.
But, regrettably, Serbia found it impossible to sign on to the Basic Agreement, and an opportunity was missed.
Obviously, much has changed since 2007. Kosovo, under the leadership of Prime Minister Albin Kurti, has been an independent and democratic country for 15 years now, striving for its well-deserved and undisputed place in Europe. Serbia, for its part, has developed into a major investment hub for international companies, and President Vučić has become a powerful proponent of the region’s economic integration.
As long as the two countries remain entrenched in confrontation mode though, they won’t be able to realize their full potential or their roles in regional cooperation and integration. Recent events in North Kosovo have once again demonstrated the risks of escalation — even of major conflict — which is why urgent action regarding the unresolved status issue of Kosovo, and the question of minority rights of its Serb community, is needed now.
Along these lines, Germany and France recently launched a new effort, presenting a “European Proposal” and closely liaising with EU partners, especially Italy, Miroslav Lajčák — the EU Special Representative for the region — and the United States. So far, both Serbia and Kosovo have both indicated their acceptance of the text, yet differences regarding modalities and implementation remain. As is often the case in crisis diplomacy, it is the fine print or the annex language that matters.
But the solution is straightforward: Serbia needs to accept the fact that Kosovo is here to stay, including on the international stage. And Kosovo needs to come to terms with the necessity of addressing the worries of its Serb minority, including accepting the envisaged formation of an association of Serb majority municipalities.
As a friend of both Kosovo and Serbia, and a former EU negotiator myself, I urge President Vučić and Prime Minister Kurti to take a leap of faith right now. On March 18, in Ohrid, both will have an historic opportunity to show political courage and leadership. And now is the time to move Serbia and Kosovo forward together, in the interest of their people, in the interest of the Western Balkans, and in the interest of peace and security in the European continent.
Make your own Zeitenwende happen — right now.