Serbia, Kosovo move closer to EU-brokered deal on normalising ties
Serbia and Kosovo gave tacit approval on Monday (27 February) to an EU proposal designed to normalise relations between the two countries. But with no signature on the dotted line yet, all eyes are on the next talks scheduled for March.
Speaking after hosting talks in Brussels between Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said both leaders had agreed “no further discussions” were needed on the EU-proposed text.
“Progress was made today, and I commend the parties for their engagement,” Borrell said, speaking to reporters without the Kosovo and Serbian leaders, taking no questions.
The latest round of talks followed months of “shuttle diplomacy”, with EU senior diplomats saying it was the first time the dialogue moved away from mere crisis management to actual discussions about normalisation.
“At the same time, more work is needed to ensure that what was accepted today by the parties will be implemented. It is important to agree [but] it is still more important to implement what has been agreed,” Borrell cautioned.
He said further leaders’ talks would be held next month to decide on the annexe, which is meant to spell out steps to implement the final deal.
The EU-brokered document, initially supported by France and Germany and now backed by all 27 member states, was published by Borrell’s diplomatic service on Monday night.
According to the 11-point text, without prejudicing recognition of each other’s status, neither side will resort to violence to resolve a dispute nor seek to prevent the other from joining international bodies – a key demand from Kosovo.
“The parties shall develop normal, good-neighbourly relations with each other based on equal rights. Both parties shall mutually recognise their respective documents and national symbols, including passports, diplomas, licence plates, and customs stamps,” according to Article 1 of the text.
Belgrade will stop short of recognising Kosovo as an independent state but agrees to recognise official documents such as passports, diplomas and licence plates and not to block Kosovo’s membership in any international organisation, including the EU.
“Serbia will not object to Kosovo’s membership in any international organisation,” according to Article 4.
The plan, however, also calls on both parties “to ensure an appropriate level of self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo and the ability for service provision in specific areas, including the possibility for financial support by Serbia.”
Serbia has insisted Kosovo establish an association of Serb-majority municipalities, but Pristina has been reluctant to allow a Belgrade-backed Serb Association of municipalities, fearing the creation of a breakaway enclave that would undermine its sovereignty and a violation of its constitution.
Leaders of Kosovo’s ethnic-Albanian majority argue such a body would give Belgrade an outsized influence in their country while Serbs say it is needed to protect their rights.
Kosovo’s top court ruled in 2015 that the last association plan violated the constitution.
The plan also includes a direct reference to the EU’s enlargement process.
“Neither Party will block, nor encourage others to block, the other Party’s progress in their respective EU path based on their own merits,” Article 5 of the text states, with a specific reference to fundamental values enshrined in the EU’s treaties.
Annex talks ahead
The details of the arrangement, and other contentious issues, are expected to be part of an annexe on implementing the deal and previous commitments.
Speaking after the meeting, Borrell said the annexe was an “integral part” of the new deal but it had not been agreed on Monday.
The EU’s chief diplomat also said he would convene another leaders’ meeting in mid to late March with the aim of finalising the annexe, before the next EU summit next month.
Serbia suggested they could be held on 18 March, in North Macedonia.
The EU’s Special Representative Lajčák will visit Kosovo and Serbia in the meantime to prepare the next leaders’ meeting, Borrell said.
Beyond the current text, entitled the “Agreement on the path to normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia”, as spelt out in the document, the ultimate aim is to reach “a legally binding agreement on comprehensive normalisation of their relations” further down the line.
The EU-sponsored talks were part of a broader international effort to get both Serbia and Kosovo to accept the deal.
Before Monday’s meeting, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni wrote a joint letter to both leaders urging them to support the pact.
The US top diplomat for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, was also in Brussels on Monday to push for an agreement.
Endorsement, but defiance
After Monday’s meeting ended in the late evening, both Kurti and Vučić blamed each other for not moving further ahead on the deal.
Serbia’s president poured cold water on hopes for a quick implementation of the deal, telling domestic media he was not likely to make concessions and adding that he expected “many more” sessions.
“It’s good that we talked and I believe we will be able to overcome unilateral moves which would endanger the safety of the people on the ground,” Vučić said.
Vučić also went on to dismiss the talks as “nothing special” and, while he agreed to continue negotiations, he insisted: “We don’t have a roadmap, people, we don’t. We need to sit and work on the roadmap.”
During Monday’s talks, Vučić posted a picture on social media of him sitting opposite Kurti, smiling to the camera while Borrell slumped, his head in his hands.
“Rough meeting. Expected. No surrender,” the caption read.
Kurti was more positive and said he would have signed the agreement if the Serbian side would have been ready to do so.
“It is a pity that we did not sign the deal tonight despite the fact that we all agree,” Kurti told reporters in Brussels.
“The agreement fully establishes equality between the parties, symmetry and good neighbourliness,” he said.
“I believe that we are on a right track for the normalisation of relations with Serbia and on a one-way path to good European neighbourliness,” he added.
(Alexandra Brzozowski | EURACTIV.com, edited by Alice Taylor)