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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

EU backs Serbia-Kosovo land swap idea 

Foreign ministers voice concerns over diplomatic push 

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini in Vienna. EPA
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini in Vienna. EPA

The European Union’s top diplomat said on Friday the bloc would support redrawing Kosovo’s border if in conformity to international law, amid concerns from some countries at a summit in Vienna.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who has been brokering the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, told a press conference in the Austrian capital that she would support land swaps as long as they abide by international law and avoid attempts to create ethnically homogeneous states.

“Whatever outcome is mutually agreed will get our support provided it is in line with international law,” she said.

German foreign minister Heiko Maas said discussions about territorial swaps could have wider repercussions for the Western Balkan region.

“We believe that this can tear open too many wounds in the population and so we are very sceptical,” Mr Maas said at the meeting.

Other EU foreign ministers expressed similar concerns. Luxembourg’s Jean Asselborn said he feared “very negative consequences” and Finland’s Timo Soini said it was risky. Britain has also warned that land swaps might have a destabilising effect.

Serbia’s deputy prime minister Ivica Dacic said he was seeking a peaceful solution with Pristina but did not elaborate on the details.

The presidents of Serbia and Kosovo said last week that they intend to reach a historic settlement on long-standing border issues and called on the EU to provide support.

Despite Mrs Mogherini’s decisive statement, the representatives of the countries she represents – as well as analysts who monitored the region since it came apart with the wars of the 1990's – expressed worry at the outcome of the negotiations.

Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, equated the idea of border changes to “sticking a hand into a hornet’s nest”.

“The question is whether you can contain territory swaps between Serbia and Kosovo and say this doesn’t set a precedent for anyone else,” Mr Bond told The National.

Revising the border between the two countries could open a Pandora’s box of border issues in the Balkans, including the borders of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Russian ambitions to control South Ossetia in Georgia and other territories.

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The minorities living outside the areas destined for land swaps would also be further isolated and further exposed to negligence and potentially abuse on the part of the authorities, Bond added.

The proposed border adjustments are part of a deal to secure Belgrade’s recognition of Kosovo independence, which would pave the way for both countries’ admission to the EU.

“If Kosovo could reach a deal which involves full diplomatic recognition by Serbia, then it would be extremely hard for the rest of the world not to recognise Kosovo,” the analyst said.

Kosovo is currently recognised by more than 100 nations but not by Serbia, Russia and five EU states, including Spain.

Following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, the bloc has been pushing for further expansion to the east, offering the six Western Balkans countries a path to EU membership.

While Mrs Mogherini’s interest in ensuring that this happens is clear, Mr Bond said that “it is not clear who Mogherini is speaking on behalf of,” given the foreign ministers’ staunch opposition to further negotiations.

Mrs Mogherini is expected to meet with Serbian and Kosovar representatives next week in a new round of talks.

As of yet, “there aren’t enough details yet on what this proposal entails,” Leopold Trangott, policy analyst at the think tank Open Europe, told The National. Mr Trangott however said that drawing the line between what constitutes an unlawful attempt to create a homogeneous ethnic state and what is permissible is still not clear.

“The question is whether we will even come that far and whether land swaps will actually happen,” Mr Trangott said. “There is the possibility that this will happen… and the implication is that there will be new pressures in the Western Balkans [for similar changes].”

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