EU should facilitate Kosovo-Serbia talks, show new muscle
EU should facilitate Kosovo-Serbia talks, show new muscle
Behind the Renewed Troubles in Northern Kosovo
Behind the Renewed Troubles in Northern Kosovo
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

EU should facilitate Kosovo-Serbia talks, show new muscle

A rare combination of events offers the EU the opportunity to help Serbia and Kosovo resolve their differences, establish relations and unblock their paths to further European integration.

The 22 July International Court of Justice (ICJ) opinion that found Kosovo's declaration of independence violated no international law or UN Resolution, a September discussion in the UN General Assembly on Kosovo, an invitation to mediate by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, and unprecedented domestic support for Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi of Kosovo and President Boris Tadić of Serbia, all make this an auspicious moment.

But to make use of it, Belgrade, Pristina and Brussels have to move swiftly and take bold steps.

Serbia has submitted a draft resolution to the General Assembly, which it says it will amend to secure the support of western powers, calling for talks. Belgrade clearly refuses to recognise Kosovo's February 2008 independence declaration.

Possibly, it only wants talks that discuss Kosovo's status, inherently delaying other countries' decisions to join the 69 states that have already recognised. But this delaying tactic is not going to work, and there will be no EU facilitated dialogue if Serbia does not accept to sit down with Kosovo as an equal.

The encouraging news is that some high level officials in Serbia seem to recognise this. They are interested in moving forward with their EU candidacy and feel Kosovo as an albatross holding them back. They want to find mutually acceptable solutions with Pristina which could pave the way for recognition.

From their perspective, this would include extraterritoriality for ancient Serbian Orthodox monasteries in the new country, and keeping as part of Serbia the territory north of the Ibar River including the north of Mitrovica. Some have said that they would consider giving parts of Serbia's Albanian-majority Preševo Valley in a land swap.

Redrawing borders makes many in the Balkans and around the world rightly nervous, but any agreement reached by both sides should not be dismissed -- whether the current Ahtisaari plan, greater autonomy for the north and orthodox religious sites, or this territorial exchange. The two patches of territory are small and sparsely populated, of comparable size, and largely ethnically homogenous.

Kosovo has said it will accept a dialogue that does not question its status or territorial integrity. It is mainly interested in addressing technical issues such as Belgrade's refusal to allow its goods, passport holders and vehicles into Serbia or its participation in regional organisations. Government authorities say that they already have 69 states signed on and they expect more in soon. Yet without Serbian recognition they will not get the recognition of Russia, China and the five in the EU who continue to consider Kosovo part of Serbia.

Pristina publicly rejects giving greater autonomy to northern Kosovo and church areas but are more flexible in private. None in Pristina would countenance simply giving away the North, but some leaders are willing to consider the idea of a territorial swap – if it is a fair trade and comes with full recognition.

The EU has much at stake here, not just regional stability; successful Kosovo-Serbia talks could also be the first real demonstration of the EU's post-Lisbon Treaty punch. It could prove the "action" in the new External Action Service.

The Union has been hampered by the Kosovo-Serbia conflict because even though the Western Balkans have a clear EU membership perspective, consensus among member states to accept Serbia's candidate application is highly unlikely until it normalises relations with its neighbours.

The current split over recognition of Kosovo among member states also limits the effectiveness of the EU's rule of law mission (EULEX) in Kosovo, its Special Representative (EUSR) and efforts to encourage Kosovo's gradual EU integration. The EU looks divided and weak in its own back yard, but successful mediation between Kosovo and Serbia would reverse that.

Policy makers in Brussels and member state capitals need to coordinate a response to Serbia's proposed UN General Assembly draft resolution, which welcomes the ICJ's July opinion, calls on the parties to wide-ranging dialogue and does not undermine Kosovo's current status. Then it should convince Kosovo and Serbia to meet as equal parties, at the highest level, with an open agenda where no issues are off limits.

It is too early to predict what Pristina and Belgrade will agree around the still non-existent negotiating table: greater autonomy for the North and churches in exchange for normalisation, or a territorial swap for immediate recognition, or only limited technical cooperation. But the EU needs to get them to that table sooner rather than later.

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