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26th Sep 2021

Merkel summit relaunches Kosovo-Serbia talks

  • Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron both voiced concern on changing Balkan borders (Photo: bundeskanzlerin.de)

Serbia and Kosovo have agreed to restart EU-brokered talks on better relations, amid ongoing disagreement - in the region and beyond - on a land-swap deal.

Serb president Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo's Hashim Thaci agreed "to press ahead with their efforts to implement existing agreements" in a "constructive" dialogue, a German government spokesman said in Berlin early on Tuesday (30 April).

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The announcement followed a special mini-summit chaired by German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron, as well as Balkan EU states Croatia and Slovenia and the six Western Balkan countries that want to join the EU.

The EU-brokered dialogue began in 2011 and marked the first contact between Belgrade and Pristina since Kosovo declared independence in 2008.

But it broke off late last year when Kosovo imposed 100 percent tariffs on Serb imports after Serbia blocked its membership of UN cultural body Unesco and international police agency Interpol.

It was unclear on Tuesday what would happen with the tariffs, which Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj has vowed to uphold.

Vucic and Thaci have also caused controversy by previously floating the idea of swapping ethnic Serb and Albanian enclaves in return for Serbia's recognition of Kosovo.

The idea was backed by the US and by EU institutions, but rejected by Germany and by Haradinaj on grounds it could create instability in the region, which contains a patchwork of brittle border accords that ended the wars there just 20 years ago.

Speaking earlier on Monday, Merkel said any final Serbia-Kosovo deal must "accompany and promote development and above all prevent problems".

Macron, who had previously sat on the fence of the land-swap idea, echoed Merkel in his remarks, adding: "We have ... to make this debate a little less emotional, so that there will be no regional tensions caused by any solutions".

A joint summit communique also said "complete normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina" was "central to the path of Serbia and Kosovo to Europe," but that the deal should be "politically sustainable and contribute to stability in the region".

For his part, Serbia's Vucic appeared to show ongoing interest in the land-swap plan, despite the warnings.

"There are borders that are recognised by the Spanish, others by Italians, others Germans, others by Russian ... There are different boundaries in mind, and therefore, a solution must come with a compromise," he said, nodding to the fact that Spain and Russia do not recognise Kosovo's split from Serbia.

Thaci also said that US ideas ought not to be discounted.

"Without the US we can never have any dialogue, negotiations or any agreement ... The EU is not united in this process," he said.

The summit communique "recalled the common European perspective of the Western Balkans".

It held up last year's name deal between Greece and North Macedonia as "an outstanding example of successful conflict resolution".

"A major problem that we have been working on for over 10 years has now been resolved," Merkel said.

But the communique dampened hopes of speedy moves toward accession, while urging regional leaders to do more to promote democracy, rule of law, and press freedom, as well as fighting corruption.

"Today it is not about accession negotiations," Merkel said before the meeting began.

The "informal" talks were "not a result-oriented process", but meant only to "open the door and see how the respective bilateral negotiations can continue," she added.

Out of the six Western Balkan states, Montenegro and Serbia have started accession talks, Albania and North Macedonia hope to do so this year, while Bosnia and Kosovo have yet to begin.

The slow pace of reform has prompted many people to leave, with 66,000 economic migrants coming from the region to Germany alone last year - a steep increase.

The EU diplomacy also comes amid Russian efforts to maintain influence and Chinese ones to build new economic links.

Other players "have their interests in the Balkans, but that it is clear that European interests matter more", Macron noted.

Most people still favoured joining the EU, according to a new poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in the US.

The figure was as high as 85 percent in Kosovo and 68 percent in Macedonia, falling to 50 percent in Russia's old ally Serbia.

Most also wanted closer ties to Nato, except for Serbia on 49 percent.

But the majority of people, except for the more pro-Western ones in Kosovo, also said they did not feel as though they belonged either in the Western bloc or in Russia's orbit.

"These results clearly show that the great power game is underway in the Western Balkans and that people in the region are torn over how to align themselves," the IRI's Jan Surotchak said.

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