Serbia-EU accession talks face ‘narrow but deep’ Kosovo gap

Kosovo is Serbia.jpg

Crunch talks aimed at ending the ethnic partition of Serbia's former Kosovo province broke up without result early this morning (3 April), in a major setback for Serbia's hopes of starting EU membership negotiations this year.




EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has been mediating months of talks between Serbia and Kosovo, said the gap between the two sides was "very narrow, but deep" after a marathon 12-hour session.

Ashton said the Brussels meeting, the eighth between the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo, was the last time all sides would meet formally with EU mediation. The talks have been aimed at "normalising ties", five years after Kosovo declared independence with the backing of the West.

"They will now both go back and consult with their colleagues in their capitals and will let me know in the next few days of their decision," Ashton said in a statement, leaving open the slim chance that a deal might still be reached.

Ashton will issue a progress report in mid-April, which will form the basis of an EU decision in June on whether to launch membership talks with Serbia – a crucial stimulus for reform and signal of stability for investors looking to the biggest economy in the former Yugoslavia.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after NATO went to war to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanian civilians during a brutal Serbian counter-insurgency campaign in what was then a Serbian province.

Serbia does not recognise the secession, but is under pressure from the West to establish functional relations with Kosovo and loosen its grip on the northern, Serb-populated pocket of the young country.

The de facto ethnic partition between Kosovo's Albanian majority and the ethnic Serb north has been at the heart of the Brussels dialogue and stands in the way of Serbia's further progress towards EU membership.

Both Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Da?i? and his Kosovo counterpart, former guerrilla commander Hashim Thaci, said there was still time left.

"This isn't the end; there will be more talks in Belgrade," Da?i? told reporters. "We have some more time to reach a solution and to gather our thoughts after these long talks."

Thaci mooted the possibility of another meeting next week, "if Serbia accepts the principles," although he did not elaborate where the talks might take place or under whose auspices.

"We hope they will use the time in the coming days for sincere reflection," Thaci told reporters. "I remain hopeful an agreement can be reached."

In a major concession as it seeks the economic boost of closer EU ties, Serbia has offered to recognise the authority of the Kosovo government over the Serb-populated north, but it wants autonomy for the 50,000 Serbs living there.

Da?i? and Thaci are at odds over the powers the Serb north should wield, particularly whether it would have its own judicial system and police.

On a visit to Kosovska Mitrovica, the largest Serbia-populated city in Kosovo, Russian ambassador to Serbia Alexander Chepurin said the EU could not help Serbians, who should instead turn to Russia, the Serbian website B92 reported.

"The only format that I can see is for Serbia to join the life force of Russia, and the format that Serbia will choose should satisfy it in the highest meaning of the word," the ambassador said during a panel discussion organized in Kosovska Mitrovica.

Chepurin stressed that his country, which does not recognize the ethnic Albanians' unilateral declaration of independence, would continue to support Serbia on Kosovo.

Russian Government Office for Kosovo Director Aleksandar Vulin also took part in the discussion, to say that, "as we want Serbia to be here, we want Russia to be close to us."

"Where there is no Russia and its impact, the Serbian voice is not heard - it's as if we're not loud enough, as if we're not seen," said Vulin.

Chepurin was further quoted as saying that Resolution 1244 of the UN Security Council was the only document that regulates the status of Kosovo. Regardless of what anyone is saying about a change in the situation, there is that one document and no other, by which the international community determined its position on Kosovo and Metohija, Chepurin said.

The EU-mediated dialog between Belgrade and Pristina began in March 2011, with the meetings taking place in Brussels. Initially, lower-level meetings were held.

After the new Serbian government was formed in July 2012, the dialogue was raised to a higher level and the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo, Ivica Da?i? and Hashim Thaci, met for the first time in October. At a meeting in December, Da?i? and Thaci agreed to exchange liaison officers.  

Since the start of the dialogue in March 2011, agreements have been reached on several issues – the free flow of people and goods, customs stamps, the acknowledgment of diplomas, integrated border management in Northern Kosovo, and the representation of Kosovo at regional conferences.

The EU is asking Serbia and Kosovo to enhance their relations – to implement the agreements made so far and reach new ones, in order to progress in European integration.

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