The European Union has for the first time spelled out its expectations for Serbia’s position on Kosovo over the next several years.
The two countries in April struck a normalisation deal with EU mediation, but there are fears among the member states that the EU lacks an instrument to prevent either side from backsliding on its commitments.
Member states’ leaders meeting in Brussels today (28 June) are set to endorse the opening of EU membership talks with Serbia, in recognition of Serbia’s constructive behaviour in the negotiations on the normalisation deal.
There has been much speculation in Serbia about the conditions that the Union could yet put before Serbia as it seeks to join, with anxiety among policymakers that they might include recognition of Kosovo, a former Serbian province that gained independence in 2008.
When asked whether Serbia would have to recognise Kosovo before being able to join the EU, Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, said today: “Everyone knows that the negotiations will take a long time. I would not like today to talk about what needs to happen in the course of those negotiations.”
A senior official sought to allay Serbian fears this week. Since five member states – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain – have not recognised Kosovo’s statehood, the Union has no means to compel Belgrade to do so.
But, the official said, the Union might demand “some kind of legally binding document” to ensure that Serbia maintains its current posture vis-à-vis its former province. Such a legal commitment would be firmer, he said, than the April agreement because it would be an integral part of accession negotiations.
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The official said that there were consultations underway to decide whether the Union’s demand for a binding commitment to normalisation should take the form of a ‘closing benchmark’ – a condition set by member states – for concluding accession negotiations.
The official stressed that such a document – firmer than the April agreement – would become topical “in four, five years” rather than at the beginning of membership talks.
While Serbia is set to get the green light for accession negotiations today and the technical screening of Serbian legislation for its compatibility with EU law is expected to start in the autumn, the first formal round of talks will, at German insistence, take place only in January.
The EU also wants binding guarantees that Serbia, should it join the Union ahead of Kosovo, will not block Kosovo’s accession – a point included in the April deal between the two countries.
Štefan Füle, the European commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, said earlier this week, after a ministerial meeting that prepared today’s decision to open membership talks, that Serbia’s relations with Kosovo would be included in chapter 35 of the talks. This chapter, on ‘other matters’, is the last of the policy areas into which accession talks are normally divided. This would give the Commission and the member states a tool to monitor implementation of the April agreement. The chapter is supposed to be opened in the first phase of membership talks and remain open until the very end.
The date of today’s decision by EU leaders to open membership talks with Serbia
carries historical significance: on 28 June 1389, Serbian forces lost the battle of Kosovo against the Ottoman Turks, leading to more than four centuries of Ottoman control over most of what is today Serbia.
Also on this day in 1914, radical Serb nationalists assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the Habsburg heir, an event that precipitated the First World War.
Croatia, with which Serbia fought a war in 1991-95, will join the Union on Monday (1 July) after the most difficult negotiations yet between any candidate country and the EU. Negotiations with Turkey have been frozen for three years, although they are expected to resume in October. Talks with Montenegro are underway and progressing well.