EU ministers voiced concern on Friday (31 August) about talk of potential border changes between Kosovo and Serbia, warning that it could destabilise the Balkans, a region still simmering with ethnic tensions.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci have suggested that “border adjustments” might be on the negotiating table in EU-brokered talks to overcome a bitter diplomatic stalemate between the two sides.
Moreover, Neighbourhood Commissioner Johannes Hahn recently encouraged the idea, saying that this should be a bilateral solution, but cautioning that it should not serve as a blueprint for other issues.
But at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Vienna, several nations raised fears about any efforts to redraw the map along ethnic lines in a region still haunted by the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
“We do not believe that discussions about an exchange of territory between Kosovo and Serbia are appropriate,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.
“We believe that this can tear open too many old wounds in the population. And therefore we are very sceptical at this point.”
Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl echoed his remarks.
“Border changes, as we have seen time and again, have brought their problems,” she said, adding that the focus should be on creating national rather than ethnic identities.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she had seen “very strong support for the dialogue” between Vučić and Thaçi, both of whom she will meet for talks in Brussels next week.
Mogherini declined to comment on either side’s specific positions, but stressed that “European history is based on overcoming and preventing any idea of ethnically pure nation states”.
“We’re working seriously on something difficult, challenging, not impossible, but still not there yet,” she said.
Both Serbia and Kosovo are seeking to join the EU but Belgrade’s refusal to recognise the 2008 independence of its former province has hampered its aspirations.
The ethnic Albanian majority region broke away from Serbia a decade after a bloody guerrilla conflict in the late 1990s but Belgrade wants to keep strong links with the Serb minority in the north.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić was at the Vienna meeting along with representatives of other nations seeking to join the EU.
“Serbia is committed to reaching a compromise between Pristina and Belgrade because this would increase stability in the region and also it would open our path towards the European Union, but we are not sure still when it is going to happen,” he said.
Finish Foreign Minister Timo Soini said talks between Serbia and Kosovo were “positive” but a land swap “could be a bit risky if it’s not prepared properly”.
“It’s a very complicated matter. The history from the war is quite heavy and of course we must be very careful not to cause new problems,” he told reporters.