BRUSSELS — The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo have tacitly approved a plan backed by the European Union to end months of political crisis and help improve their ties in the longer term, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Monday after presiding over the talks.
At a press conference following a series of meetings in Brussels, Borrell told reporters alone that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti “agreed today that there is no need for further discussions on the European Union’s proposal.”
Both countries want to join the EU, which has told them they must settle their differences first.
Borrell provided few details about the talks — and reporters were not allowed to ask questions — other than that “more work is needed” and that the two leaders will meet again next month.
Vucic said separately that “I was hoping that we would be able to agree on some compromises, but Mr. Kurti was not ready for that.” Vučić added: there was no mention of how the EU plan could be put into practice.
Kurti, for his part, said that both leaders accepted the text, but the “Serbian side was not ready to sign.”
Tensions have been running high between Serbia and its former province Kosovo since the unilateral secession in 2008; recognized by many Western countries, but opposed by Serbia, supported by Russia and China. Discussions mediated by the EU have not made much progress in recent years.
Recently, these tensions have flared over seemingly trivial matters such as the format of vehicle number plates or the arrest of an ethnic Serb police officer, prompting renewed concern among Western leaders that a new Balkan conflict could erupt just as Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its second year.
But Borrell expressed cautious optimism that the two sides could now move on from the “crisis management” of recent months. “I hope that the agreement can be the basis for building much-needed trust and overcoming the legacy of the past,” he said.
He said the plan means that “people will be able to move freely between Serbia and Kosovo using their own, mutually recognized identity cards and number plates. It means people can study and work without having to wonder if their degree and where they got it might be a problem.”
Borrell said it offers new economic opportunities for both sides through increased financial support, business cooperation and the prospect of new investment. He said the plan would provide better jobs and improve trade by eliminating the need for import-export certificates.
Urging all Kosovo people and experts to read the agreement, Kurti told reporters that “we are on a good one-way path to normalizing relations between Kosovo and Serbia in a good European neighborhood.”
Borrell also welcomed Vucic and Kurti’s commitment to ensure that Serbia and Kosovo “abstain from any uncoordinated steps that could lead to renewed tensions on the ground and derail these negotiations.”
Previous discussions between Vucic and Kurti turned into arguments and mutual accusations.
The EU has been mediating negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo since 2011, but only a few of the 33 signed agreements have been implemented. The EU and the US have been pushing for faster progress since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
Earlier this month, hundreds of Serbian nationalists gathered in Belgrade to demand that Vučić reject the EU plan and withdraw from the negotiations.
The right-wing protesters blocked traffic while chanting “Treason” and carrying banners reading “Need to surrender” as they gathered near the Serbian presidency building. The protesters are also strongly pro-Russia, and one banner read: “Treason of Kosovo is betrayal of Russia!”
In recent months, US and EU envoys have made regular visits to Pristina and Belgrade to urge them to accept the new proposals, and the two leaders met with senior EU officials earlier this month as part of a major security conference in Munich, Germany.
Dusan Stojanovic contributed in Belgrade, Serbia, and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania.