By Daniel Dombey in Brussels and Neil MacDonald in Belgrade
The future of Kosovo, the province at the heart of Nato’s 1999 war with Serbia, is dividing European governments, even though they have little time to resolve their differences before the issue comes to the United Nations, according to Brussels officials.
A senior European Commission official told the Financial Times that the lack of consensus among European Union states on recognising Kosovo hampered efforts to agree a UN resolution on the issue.
“The crux of the matter is that we need unity in the EU,” the senior official said. “This is particularly important ahead of the UN Security Council debate because of the negotiations there.”
The EU’s formal stance is to support a UN resolution based on the efforts of Martti Ahtisaari, the UN’s negotiator on the issue. But member states are at odds at how to overcome Serbian opposition to Kosovan independence.
While the UK, which is more inclined to recognise Kosovo as independent, believes that a deal may ultimately have to be imposed, not negotiated, countries such as Greece, Cyprus and Spain are unhappy about such a position.
”What is important for Greece is to have a negotiated settlement not an imposed one,” said a Greek spokesman. A Spanish official voiced similar sentiments.
The issue is especially sensitive because Mr Ahtisaari’s plan to grant Kosovo “virtual independence” is facing stiff Russian opposition at the UN. Yet the US and the UK fear that unless Kosovo’s status is resolved over the next few months the western Balkans will remain a source of instability in the heart of Europe.
Mr Ahtisaari is due to discuss his plans - which do not mention the word “independence” but would give Kosovo the right to form an army and to join international organisations - with the Kosovo Albanian leadership and Serbia in Vienna on Saturday. The UN is expected to discuss a resolution based on his ideas during April and May.
Serbia steadfastly opposes independence for Kosovo, and Russia, which has a veto at the UN, says it will not back any resolution that is not backed by both the Serbs and the Kosovo Albanian leadership.
Commission officials believe that the EU’s failure to strike a more united front makes it more difficult to convince Moscow not to use the veto.
“While Russia generally condemns unilateralism, why does it yet threaten to use the veto in the UN Security Council- the ultimate unilateral act?” asked Olli Rehn, the EU’s enlargement Commissioner, in a recent speech.
The EU is also edging towards resuming talks on deepening ties with Belgrade, so as to overcome Serbian resentment of an imposed settlement and Kosovan independence.
This week, Mr Rehn said Serbia could become a formal “candidate” for EU membership next year if it did more to cooperate on hunting down war crimes indictees. “The question is whether we can get Serbia to come out with a ‘soft no’ that would mean less antagonism in the long run,” said a EU diplomat.
Such a scenario would imply resuming talks on an association agreement with the EU in April and concluding the deal in the autumn, with Serbia submitting an application for membership soon afterwards.
Brussels already has planning teams in place in Kosovo, preparing for the EU takeover of executive authority, policing and justice from the current UN mission four months after the hoped-for UN resolution.