17th Sep 2019

Ashton tackles Serb tensions on maiden voyage to Balkans

  • Ms Ashton in Sarajevo on 18 February. She has named Bosnia as one of her top priorities, alongside Iran and Afghanistan (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton took aim at Serbian nationalist tensions in the western Balkans in a speech on her first trip to the region.

Addressing the risk of secession by the ethnic Serb enclave in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, which threatens to undo the country's 1995 peace deal, she said: "Bosnia and Herzegovina can only join the European Union as one country ...Politics of division and flirtations with secessionist rhetoric are as harmful as they are pointless. The EU will never accept the break-up of Bosnia and Herzegovina."

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Her remarks, delivered to a congress of NGOs in Belgrade on Thursday (18 February), also alluded to Serbia's political and financial support for ethnic Serb enclaves in Kosovo, which refuse to co-operate with the ethnic Albanian government in Pristina.

"Different views on the status of Kosovo should not prevent us from moving forward in solving practical issues," Ms Ashton said. "Kosovo is an integral part of the EU 's Western Balkans strategy. The EU may have left the status issue to individual member states. But the EU as a whole is clear that the future of Kosovo is European."

The Ashton line runs parallel to recent diplomatic complaints made by individual EU powers to Belgrade.

The chief advisor to President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Jean David Levitte, earlier this month wrote to Serb foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, urging him to cool down his statements on Kosovo, WAZeuobserver.com reported.

A separate letter to Mr Jeremic from a quintet of countries which co-ordinate policy on Kosovo - the US, UK, Germany, France and Italy - also disapproved of his "aggressive rhetoric."

Kosovo Prime Minister Hacim Thaci in an opinion piece for EUobserver published on Friday said: "Serbia has ongoing strategies for obstructing Kosovo's independence, be it in Kosovo's representation abroad or through compromising Kosovo's sovereignty within its country, by financing and supporting the creation of parallel structures."

There is a popular idea in Pristina that Belgrade is quietly blackmailing the EU to speed up Serbia's accession process by threatening to use proxies in Bosnia and Kosovo to stir up trouble. But EU governments are more sanguine: "It sounds like a conspiracy theory to me," one EU diplomat said.

Ms Ashton has tried to avoid confrontation in her first three months in the EU foreign relations job.

Her predecessor, Javier Solana, was a towering figure in the Western Balkans. As Nato secretary general, he gave the green light to the bombing of Belgrade in 1999. Later, as the EU's top diplomat, he helped steer Kosovo to its unilateral declaration of independence in 2007.

Ms Ashton's speeches are being watched for clues on how she plans to shape EU foreign policy over the next five years.

Her Belgrade statement depicted the EU as a guarantor of security, a role formally reserved for Nato, but with French and German leaders recently speaking out in support of a European army.

"In this world, the small and medium-sized states of Europe cannot provide real security. That is why the European Union is essential for our future," Ms Ashton said.

EU split on Western Balkans accession

Europe's credibility is at risk in the Western Balkans, half its member states have warned - but EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said Albania and North Macedonia unlikely to start accession talks soon.

Tensions mount over Kosovo-Serbia deal

Serbia will never recognise Kosovo, Serbia's foreign minister has said, as the Western Balkans heads into a new period of turbulence.

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