EU to host new effort to wrest Serbia-Kosovo deal
(BRUSSELS) - The European Union will host Wednesday another round of Serbia-Kosovo talks amid speculation that a deal is in sight to end years of tensions and pave the way for closer ties with the bloc, officials said.
EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton, who has chaired eight rounds of EU-sponsored talks, said Tuesday she had invited Serb Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci to Brussels.
"I have asked them to come in a constructive spirit, ready to explore different options and agree to a mutual compromise," she said.
The last round of talks earlier this month finished with both sides separated by a "very narrow but deep" gap, as Ashton described it.
The announcement of Wednesday's meeting stoked hopes the two sides are ready to do a deal given the prospect that if they do not, steps towards future membership of the EU will be stayed indefinitely.
Germany warned Serbia bluntly Tuesday that its bid to join the EU will remain on ice until it settles the dispute.
"The normalisation of relations (between Serbia and Kosovo) is among the criteria for Serbia's goal of closer European integration," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters after meeting his Kosovo counterpart Enver Hoxhaj.
"An agreement on starting negotiations on Serbia joining the EU, which it would like to see this summer, will be significantly delayed if it does not reach a deal with Kosovo."
Hoxhaj said Pristina for its part hoped for decisions in Brussels "which will open up the possibility of an association accord with the EU."
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said separately on Tuesday that he was very hopeful of an accord.
"What I know from the discussions in the rounds so far (and other contacts) ... make me confident that there is going to be a very serious and credible effort to bridge ... the very narrow but deep gap," Fuele said, referring to Ashton's phrase.
The main sticking point in the conflict has been the future of the Serb minority living in Kosovo, especially the north, since Pristina unilaterally declared independence in 2008.
Belgrade refuses to recognise Kosovo's independence but some 100 countries, including the United States and most EU member states, do.
It was also announced Tuesday that Ashton will visit Bosnia and Croatia, which joins the EU formally on July 1, later this week after returning to Brussels to host the Serbia-Kosovo talks.
On Monday and Tuesday she visited Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia as the Balkan countries all seek closer ties with the EU.