Serbia-Kosovo dispute puts EU ties at risk

Autonomy for Kosovo Serbs key issue as Belgrade and Pristina eye EU rewards during Ireland presidency

Kosovo's prime minister Hashim Thaci talks to the media as he arrives for a meeting with Serbian prime minister Ivica Dacic and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (not pictured) in Brussels yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Laurent Dubrule

Kosovo's prime minister Hashim Thaci talks to the media as he arrives for a meeting with Serbian prime minister Ivica Dacic and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (not pictured) in Brussels yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Laurent Dubrule

Thu, Apr 18, 2013, 06:00

Kosovo denied that talks with Serbia had broken down last night as the EU sought to coax them towards a deal that would help both countries move towards membership of the bloc.

Serbian prime minister Ivica Dacic and Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci met in Brussels for negotiations brokered by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who delayed the release of a key report to give them another chance to break an impasse in their relations.

If Dacic and Thaci make a deal, the report is likely to urge EU leaders to give Serbia a firm date in June for the start of accession talks, and to sign a basic association agreement with Kosovo.

If the premiers fail to agree, those steps may not be taken in June, the last month of Ireland’s EU presidency, and positive recent momentum in Belgrade-Pristina relations would be lost.

Serbia rejected an EU-backed deal earlier this month, saying it did not give enough autonomy to Serbs who predominate in northern Kosovo, where the Pristina government has no real control.

Belgrade wants Kosovo Serbs to be allowed to run their own police force and judicial system and for the Kosovo army to be barred from entering Serb communities.

Kosovo's leaders are wary of granting autonomy. They fear it would make northern Kosovo ungovernable and formalise the de facto split between ethnic Albanian and ethnic Serb areas.

Vlora Citaku, Kosovo’s minister for European integration, tweeted that the deal on offer yesterday was “good for Kosovo and not bad for Serbia! Deal still possible!”

Soon after, however, Serb media reported that Mr Thaci had walked out of the meeting because he was unhappy with Baroness Ashton’s proposal.

“Not true! It is a pause for consultation for both delegations,” Ms Citaku tweeted in response.

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle blamed Serbia for the impasse and said a decision on opening accession talks with Belgrade would be “significantly delayed if it does not reach a deal with Kosovo”.

But Pristina might still be asked to sign an EU stabilisation and association deal in June, he added.

“When one country delivers results and another doesn’t, the one . . . that is doing its homework must not be held responsible for the lack of good will by the other,” he said.