22nd Mar 2018

Ashton clinches Kosovo-Serbia deal

Serbia is to get a date for EU accession talks, Kosovo is to get some control over its north and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton got kudos after a breakthrough in Kosovo-Serbia talks.

The deal in Brussels on Friday (19 April) saw Serbia drop its call for the ethnic Serb enclave in north Kosovo to gain autonomy.

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It saw Kosovo drop its demand for Serbia to lift objections against Kosovar membership in international institutions, including the UN.

The first six points of the 15-point agreement spell out the powers of an association of Serb-majority municipalities, including control of "economic development, education, health, urban and rural planning."

But points seven to 10 give Pristina ultimate authority over police and courts in Serb areas.

Local Serb leaders will be able to nominate police chiefs, while rank-and-file police will "reflect the ethnic composition of the [local] population."

But Pristina's interior ministry will pick the chiefs from among the nominees.

The text adds: "There shall be one police force in Kosovo called the Kosovo Police. All police in northern Kosovo shall be integrated in the Kosovo Police framework. Salaries will be only from the Kosovo Police."

It also says: "The judicial authorities will be integrated and operate within the Kosovo legal framework."

Point 14 drops the UN-enabling language.

Instead it says: "neither side will block, or encourage others to block, the other side’s progress in their respective EU path."

Serb PM Ivica Dacic made a cagey statement after he initialled the paper.

He said initialling is not the same as signing and that "[Serb] institutions will decide in the next few days whether we will accept it or reject it."

Kosovar leader Hashim Thaci was more enthusiastic.

He said "the signature [sic] of the agreement is a recognition of Kosovo, its … sovereignty and territorial integrity." He added it "represents the start of a new era."

Ashton said: "What we are seeing is a step away from the past and, for both of them, a step closer to Europe."

The deal comes after 14-hour-long talks in Brussels on Thursday ended with no outcome.

Following Ashton's appeal, the Thaci delegation turned around in Ljubljana airport on Thursday night to return to the EU capital, prompting the Serbs to come back from Belgrade.

European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said he will recommend that EU leaders give Serbia a date in June for starting EU entry talks and give Kosovo a date for talks on a pre-accession pact, a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA).

"I am confident that the agreement reached between the two sides will pave the way for the Council to take decisions on the next steps on the European path of Serbia and Kosovo," he said.

Barroso, EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy and enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele praised Ashton.

"I would like to thank high representative Ashton for her committed, consistent conduct of the facilitated dialogue crowned in the end with a true breakthrough," Van Rompuy said.

Speaking earlier on Friday at the "Globsec" conference in Bratislava, Fuele said the fact five EU countries do not recognise Kosovo is not a problem for the SAA.

He said the draft text has been designed to cover only commission competences and has no bearing on member states' laws: "Thus, at the end, there will be no need for ratification by member states."

Kosovo's deputy foreign minister Petrit Selimi said the UN clause would be no great loss.

"I think a lot of young people in Kosovo would love to have their team in the European football championships or their group in the Eurovision song contest … the UN will come," he noted.

He said the deal on normalising relations has some way to go before it becomes reality.

"If a young kid from Belgrade can come to Pristina, can visit the [Serb orthodox] Gracanica monastery, but also attend a concert, and the other way around, then that's the real test," he noted.

He added that Kosovo-Serb talks should go on for a long time.

"We will continue the dialogue. We will continue it all of our lives. We haven't been talking to each other since the fall of the Ottoman empire, so we have some catching up to do," he said.

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