Serbia's EU future hangs on a footnote
EU-mediated negotiations between Belgrade and Priština are to resume this morning (24 February) in Brussels, with high stakes: the granting of EU candidate status to Serbia at the 1-2 March summit or a return to nationalism on the eve of elections in Serbia at the end of April. BETA, the EurActiv partner agency in Serbia, contributed to this article.
The talks will focus on the representation of Kosovo in regional forums, as well as the management of the borders between Kosovo and Serbia, which does not recognise the independence of its former province (see background).
If an agreement is reached, Belgrade could receive EU candidate status within a week. Indeed, EU leaders at the December 2011 summit said that such a decision could be taken in February and confirmed at the 1-2 March EU summit.
European heads of states and government will have final say over Serbia's candidate status when they meet in Brussels next week.
But the "key moment" for Serbia will be the General Affairs Council meeting that will bring together the EU's 27 foreign ministers on 28 February, according to a diplomat in Brussels.
Whether Serbia's relations with Kosovo have shown signs of improvements will weigh heavily in the minister's assessment. "We need to see progress on regional cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo," the diplomat stressed.
A prerequisite for EU negotiators is that customs relations at the Serb-Kosovo border be normalised. Serbs have reportedly removed barricades at the border between Serb-populated northern Kosovo and Serbia itself, enabling cars to cross for the first time since violent clashes erupted last July.
"Having arrangements for the free movement of goods and people is important in this context," the diplomat said, referring to clashes last summer at Serbia's border with Kosovo.
Reportedly, Austria, France and Italy have issued a joint plea to High Representative Catherine Ashton to open the EU door to Serbia.
Hanging on a footnote
Belgrade has clear red lines in the negotiation and refuses to let Kosovo's declaration of independence from being mentioned in a footnote of the agreement under discussion in Brussels.
Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi stoked those fears, saying that by signing this document, Serbia would in fact recognise Kosovo.
Serbian officials refuse to budge on the issue. But they seem open to a compromise that would refer to UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which had put an end to the 1999 Kosovo war, and to the 2010 opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ruled that Kosovo did not violate international law when it seceded from Serbia in February 2008.
Germany's position key
A big question mark is the position of Germany, which has insisted that Serbia and Kosovo normalise their relations.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle visited Belgrade yesterday and stated that Serbia had "come very far on its path towards the EU over the last years".
In reply, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić said that Serbia would have work over the next few days, "but work while knowing that success is possible."
Serbia is to hold parliamentary elections at the end of April or the beginning of May, with populism on the rise and increased attacks against the president's Democratic Party, seen by many as the key pro-democratic force in Serbia.
A recent referendum organised in the Serbia-populated northern part of Kosovo was rejected by the Serbian government as unnecessary and illegal. However, the referendum and its overwhelming outcome (the rejection of the authority of Priština), was welcomed by the Democratic Party of Serbia of Vojislav Koštunica and the Serbian Radical Party of Dragan Todorović whose President, Voislav Šešelj, is facing trial for war crimes in the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
Recently, Ivica Dačić, interior minister and leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia, a coalition partner in the government, said that if the EU turns down Serbia's bid, the country would turn to Russia as a strategic partner.
Kosovo seceded from Serbia on 17 February 2008, nine years after the end of the war between Belgrade's security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas. In the following years, Kosovo became an international protectorate patrolled by NATO peacekeepers.
After Kosovo declared independence, the republic established a new constitution, army, national anthem, flag, passports, identity cards and an intelligence agency.
Some 90% of the population is ethnic Albanian. However, Serb-populated northern Mitrovica remains largely outside the control of Priština.
Most EU countries - except Spain, Greece, Romania, Cyprus and Slovakia - have recognised the independence of Kosovo.
Hours after the publishing of this article, High Representative Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle announced the agreement reached by publishing a statement.
Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson to Ashton, said that the Republic of Kosovo will be able to speak for itself and sign agreements at all regional meetings (until now agreements have been signed by UNMIK on behalf of Kosovo). "Kosovo*" will be the only denomination to be used, and a footnote attached to the asterisk will read "this designation is without prejudice to positions on status and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.