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“It’s good to talk” EU tells Serbia, Kosovo

July 28, 2010

kosovoThe message to Serbia from Brussels is clear: swallow your pride and start talking to Kosovo. Without strong evidence that Belgrade is mending ties with its former province, the message goes on, Serbia’s pathway to European Union entry will be rocky, if not blocked entirely.

Quietly, EU diplomats warn that Serbia must tread carefully on the issue. Since the International Court of Justice ruled last week that Kosovo’s 2008 secession was legal, the province is gone from Serbia for good, they caution.

“After the ICJ decision, anyone who thinks the status of Kosovo as independent will be reversed is delusional,” one 
Brussels-based diplomat stated plainly.

At the same time, it’s not as if the EU is above mixed messages. Twenty-two of the EU’s member states recognise Kosovo’s independence, while the remaining five are more sympathetic to Serbia. At a meeting of EU foreign ministers this week, several governments pressed for Serbia to be given inducements, such as a smoother ride towards EU entry, to get it to start negotiating with Kosovo.

But no such incentives emerged. On the contrary, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said after the meeting that the bloc was waiting for Serbia, and for good measure Kosovo too, to make the first step.

That has fallen on deaf ears in Belgrade, where politicians insist they will never recognise Kosovo.

Hostility between the two runs deep. Serbia sees Kosovo as the inseparable birthplace of its Orthodox Church. Kosovars will never forget the brutal crackdown by Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb army that ended with NATO bombings in 1999.

Neither Serbia nor Kosovo has any near-term prospect of joining the EU, but membership of the bloc remains an economic and political priority for both over the next decade and is likely to keep them in odd conjunction.

There are practical ways that both Pristina and Belgrade could win favour in Brussels and ease their way to the
negotiating table without addressing the critical question of Kosovo’s status.

These include separate country telephone codes, electricity supplies and customs controls, among others. Talks on those issues will be difficult, but it’s easier to explain them at home when customs stamps are all that’s at stake and not far more emotive issues of separation.

It may sound wishy-washy, but as Balkans expert Tim Judah pointed out in the Financial Times on Wednesday, it may be that what Serbia and Kosovo need right now is a period of “constructive ambiguity” — where each finds non-antagonistic ways of talking around the main point — before the hardnosed issue of final settlement is tackled.

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