Serbia has rejected a European Union-brokered plan to tackle the ethnic partition of its breakaway province of Kosovo, a move that could hurt Balkan country’s EU membership aspirations and fuel tensions in the region.
The EU had given Serbia until Tuesday to say whether it would relinquish its effective control over northern Kosovo in exchange for the start of membership negotiations.
“The government of Serbia cannot accept principles verbally presented to its negotiating team in Brussels, since they do not guarantee full security and protection of human rights to the Serb people in Kosovo,” Ivica Dacic, Serbian prime minister, told reporters.
However Belgrade “pledges an urgent resumption of dialogue with Pristina with EU mediation,” Dacic said.
“The government of Serbia cannot accept principles verbally presented to its negotiating team in Brussels, since they do not guarantee full security and protection of human rights to the Serb people in Kosovo.“
– Ivica Dacic, Serbian prime minister
The main stumbling block in the talks, which got under way late last year, has concerned the future of Kosovo’s Serb minority, especially in the north.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. It has since won recognition from more than 90 countries, including the United States and most EU member states, but Serbia has refused to do so.
A deal with Kosovo is the key Brussels-set condition for Serbia if it wants to start membership talks for EU membership later this year. A refusal could delay Serbia’s integration into the EU indefinitely.
Dacic spoke after the Serbian government met to draft a response to proposals made verbally in Brussels last week, when Belgrade and Pristina failed to find common ground on how to defuse their longstanding tensions.
Both sides were due to formally respond by Tuesday to the proposals to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton – who has chaired the eight rounds of talks between the Serbian and Kosovo delegations.
In Brussels, Ashton said she regretted the Serbian government’s decision and called on it “to make a last effort to reach an agreement”.
Serbia and Kosovo have been under pressure from Brussels to strike a deal ahead of a European Commission report to be issued on April 16.
The report, which EU leaders will evaluate at a late June summit, is crucial to paving the way for Serbia to join the bloc, as the beginning of membership talks are contingent on the improvement of relations with its former province.
Ashton’s spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the EU was waiting for the official decisions from Serbia and Kosovo.
Asked whether the dialogue can continue, Kocijancic said: “We need first to see the response and then decide how to take it forward.”
In Pristina, the Kosovo government said it was “disappointed” with the Serbian refusal, but insisted it remained committed to the negotiating process as “dialogue is the only solution” for a long-standing problem.
Earlier, Kosovo prime minister Hashim Thaci said the two sides “are still a part of the dialogue” aimed at normalising relations.
The two disputed points relate to the sensitive issue of representation in the police force and courts. Pristina objects to Belgrade’s insistence on full representation for Serbs in areas populated by a Serb minority in majority ethnic-Albanian Kosovo.
Both sides earlier agreed to establish an association of Serb municipalities, but Kosovo refuses to grant it the executive and judicial powers demanded by Serbia.