EU's Ashton predicts "rich year ahead" with Kosovo

05/03/2012

Meeting in Brussels, the focus was on an array of possibilities, particularly a Free Trade Agreement.

By Linda Karadaku for Southeast European Times in Pristina -- 05/03/12

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In Brussels on Thursday (March 1st), EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci "we have reached a milestone." [Reuters]

If there was one message EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton made sure she delivered during her latest meeting with Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci it was this: the Union wants Kosovo to move closer to eventual membership and is willing to help make that happen.

Ashton sat down with Thaci in Brussels on Thursday (March 1st). Praising the agreements reached between Kosovo and Serbia during EU-mediated technical dialogue -- agreements on Kosovo regional presentation and the Integrated Border Management (IBM) -- Ashton remarked "We have gone a long, long way."

And she looked to the future. "We have a rich year ahead of us in our relationship: the feasibility study, the visa dialogue, the trade agreement, participation of Kosovo in EU programmes and I hope European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) membership," Ashton said during a joint press conference with Thaci.

Ashton added that while these will require work on both sides and continued co-operation, "we have reached a milestone."

Thaci echoed that theme and said the agreements "mark a milestone not only for Kosovo and Serbia, but also for the EU". He added "the future of Kosovo and all other countries of the Western Balkans is in the EU and NATO."

Veton Vula, of the Kosovo European Institute "JURIDICA", told SETimes that talks and the agreements reached with Serbia "will accelerate Kosovo's way towards the EU; Kosovo has [given] a lot, it has to be rewarded somehow." She added that strategically, "It would be good to get [Kosovo] closer to the EU before Serbia finally gets in, [in light of] the Macedonia-Greece model and the obstacles put by Greece to Macedonia."

Samuel Žbogar, head of the EU office in Pristina, issued a statement Tuesday reaffirming the EU's willingness to support Kosovo's efforts towards enhanced trade relations "by preparing and training [authorities] to enhance their administrative capacity to conduct trade policy, possibly leading to a trade agreement. This is certainly a very demanding task: while the EU has unlocked the door, it is up to Kosovo to open it and enter," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Trade and Industry Mimoza Kusari Lila reportedly observed that "Kosovo has made visible progress towards starting negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement, and trade relations between Kosovo and the EU have been improved." EC and Kosovo authorities also discussed progress achieved in the areas of industry and SME policy, customs and taxation.

Kosovo and the EU are working together through the so-called SAP Dialogue introduced by the European Commission in autumn 2009 as an upgrade of the previous Stabilisation and Association Process Tracking Mechanism. This is the framework under which the EC and the Kosovo administration regularly discuss technical and policy issues in relation to the European agenda. It stemmed from a feasibility study proposed by the EU in November 2008 to evaluate how Kosovo can best take advantage of regional and European integration.

But Leonora Kryeziu, executive director of the Kosovo Institute for Political Studies (PIPS), told SETimes the agreements will not produce much for Kosovo. "Even though the EU has given the green light for the beginning of the feasibility study, I don't think this was a present, not acceleration either, but only a displacement of the issue from Pristina to the EU Council of Ministers," Kryeziu told SETimes.

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The same, she said, goes for the visa liberalisation, which "should not be considered a present, but a fulfillment of the obligations from the Kosovars, as all the states of the region have done until now".

"I think the EU is not sincere towards Kosovo because the feasibility study can drag [out] the integration of Kosovo for many more years, until an opinion is given for the signing of the SAA agreement," she said. "This is more about the lack of internal consensus of the EU on Kosovo."

Five EU member countries do not recognise Kosovo's independence "and these agreements should be signed by all 27 member states," Kryeziu said.

Publicly, Thaci appeared positive. "The steps we are doing are difficult because of the past. But these steps are crucial for our joint European perspective," he said, calling the agreements with Serbia "historical", and added "The Republic of Kosovo is proud to be a European state and is ready to take its place in the EU, NATO and the United Nations."

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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