Serbia bolsters EU chances after reaching Kosovo deal
(BRUSSELS) - Serbia strengthened its chances of winning entry into the European Union club Friday after agreeing a deal with breakaway Kosovo that sees Pristina set to be a full player on the Western Balkans scene.
A groundbreaking accord between the two, struck days before the EU rules on Serbia's bid to join, notably allows Kosovo to take part in official regional meetings and organisations, in its own right and as a full member.
"This agreement makes clear that Kosovo will speak for Kosovo," said EU diplomat Robert Cooper, who over a year has brokered talks aimed at easing problems stemming from Pristina's unilateral breakaway in 2008.
Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo's independence but after more than two days of tough negotiations agreed to let Pristina into meetings under the title "Kosovo*" -- the asterisk referring to a footnote outlining distinct international rulings on its disputed status.
The deal will allow Kosovo to sign agreements and speak for itself, a role previously ascribed to the UN mission in Kosovo UNMIK.
"UNMIK will be no longer be at the table where Kosovo will be presented," said Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. "The agreement is a key for the integration of Kosovo in the international community."
The two sides also struck an accord to jointly manage their flashpoint border, the scene of recurrent violence in past months between NATO peacekeepers and angry Serbs who make up the majority in northern Kosovo but who reject independence.
Praising the deals in the interests of peace in Europe, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she hoped they would open the door to Serbia's EU candidacy.
"Serbia's progress toward European integration is good for Serbia, good for Kosovo and good for the future of the entire region," Clinton said in a statement.
This week's difficult talks, which began on a negative note with a 24-hour delay from Pristina, were closely watched by EU powers, which will deliver a crucial verdict next week on Belgrade's bid to join the 27-nation bloc.
European affairs ministers will discuss Serbia's application to become a candidate for EU membership Tuesday ahead of an EU summit March 1 and 2 that will deliver a final ruling.
After last year's arrest of longtime wanted war criminals Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, Belgrade appeared to be a shoo-in for candidacy to the bloc but some EU members were reluctant until seeing more progress in ties with Kosovo.
A decision to open the EU door to Belgrade was postponed in December because of hitches in the EU-run talks, with Serbia warned that its bid depended on progress on both issues -- Kosovo's participation in regional meetings and joint border management -- as well as on easing tension on the border.
Late Thursday, as negotiations in Brussels continued into the night, Serbs removed barricades in northern Kosovo, enabling cars to cross into Serbia for the first time since July.
"It is in the highest national interest to remove all obstacles to getting candidate status," Serbian President Boris Tadic said in a statement.
With any such decision requiring unanimity under EU rules, Austria, France and Italy this week circulated a joint plea to usher Serbia into the EU door at the upcoming summit.
Britain and Germany notably were reluctant failing breakthrough at the Serbia-Kosovo talks, though German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle appeared Thursday to lift Berlin's objections after talks with Tadic.
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