EU top executive tells Belgrade and Pristina to speed up normalisation of ties

BELGRADE (Reuters) – Both Serbia and Kosovo must step up their efforts to normalise relations after the most recent flare-up of violence, if they want to join the European Union, Ursula von der Leyen, EU executive’s president, said on Tuesday.

Von der Leyen’s visit to Belgrade comes only days after leaders of France, Germany and Italy called on Serbia to “deliver on de-facto recognition” of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 but which Belgrade has continued to regard as its southern province.

The move follows growing concerns over the possibility of an open conflict between Belgrade and Pristina following a recent flare-up of violence in predominantly Serb northern Kosovo. The rest of Kosovo is overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian.

Von der Leyen said that those involved in a clash between armed Serbs and Kosovo police on Sept. 24 “must be held accountable and brought to justice”.

“This is absolutely crucial for both (Kosovo and Serbia) to engage and go on the path of normalisation,” she told a news conference after meeting Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic.

The EU wants Belgrade to endorse the statute of an association of Serb municipalities made to allow a degree of autonomy in areas in Kosovo where Serbs are a majority, and from Pristina to implement it, von der Leyen said.

“It is essential that Serbia begins the implementation of the existing agreements and does not lose time on this,” she said.

Belgrade previously agreed to take steps to normalise ties with Pristina, including the recognition of personal documents, car number plates and diplomas, but demanded creation of the association of Serb communities, something Pristina has so far rejected.

Vucic said Serbia would fulfil its obligations in line with Eu-brokered agreements, but that Belgrade has its constitutional limitations.

“In line with that we would address our obligations responsibly and seriously,” he said.

With the backing of Russia, China and a number of other countries including Ukraine and five EU members, Belgrade refuses to recognise Kosovo. The preamble of Serbia’s constitution sees Kosovo as a southern province.

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)