The mention of Kosovo's territorial integrity in European Commission documents has provoked strong reactions from Serbian officials, and analysts warn that Belgrade's path to the EU may slow down.
By Igor Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 16/10/12
The EC is calling for Belgrade to "respect the territorial integrity of Kosovo." [Reuters]
This past March, Serbia was granted EU candidate status and has been waiting to get a date for the beginning of membership talks since then. But judging by the latest progress report and enlargement strategy of the European Commission, Belgrade is further from that date than ever before.
At the same time, the uncertainty of European integration and misunderstandings with the EU over Kosovo have resulted in the Serbian citizens' support to EU membership falling to a new low.
The EC's enlargement strategy calls for visible and sustainable improvement in relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
"This process should gradually result in the full normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo with the prospect of both being able to fully exercise their rights and fulfill their responsibilities within the EU. Addressing the problems in northern Kosovo, while respecting the territorial integrity of Kosovo and the particular needs of the local population, will be an essential element of this process," the EC concluded.
The formulation concerning the territorial integrity of Kosovo has upset Belgrade officials.
"Instead of aiding the start of dialogue (with Pristina) it can close it down. Perhaps it would have been fairer to ask Serbia to recognize Kosovo's independence rather than to acknowledge state integrity," Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said.
The turmoil in Belgrade was not cooled by Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, who during a visit to Serbia said the mentioning of Kosovo's territorial integrity had nothing to do with its status; it only means the EU does not want Kosovo to be partitioned, he said.
Nonetheless, President Tomislav Nikolic asked for that phrasing in the Commission document to be changed and for a clear definition to be given showing that the issue in question is the indivisibility of Kosovo's territory.
"That way the EU would prove its dedication to the status neutrality of Kosovo and Metohija," but also that it wants Serbia to join it, Nikolic said at a meeting with Fule. However, the commissioner said there would be no change of phrasing.
Predrag Simic, former Serbian ambassador to France, said that Serbia was now facing the question of how to continue with European integration.
"Today Serbia is further from the EU than it was a year ago," he told SETimes.
Vladimir Radomirovic of the Center for Strategic Alternatives said the EC documents only confirmed what already happened in 2008, when 22 of the 27 EU member states recognized Kosovo.
"Now the European Commission has also accepted Kosovo as an independent state, which is best illustrated by the feasibility study and the announcements of EU officials that Kosovo will sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA)," Radomirovic said in a statement to SETimes.
Ian Bancroft of the organization TransConflict said that the Serbian government would aim to avoid facing the choice "either Kosovo or the EU."
The Serbian government "will continue to insist on absolute status neutrality – hence the sharp reaction to the mention of Kosovo's territorial integrity. It is not only Serbia that will have to find pragmatic ways forward in its relations with Kosovo, but the EU as well – for instance on visas and an SAA – given the differences that exist within the Union," Bancroft told SETimes.
Meanwhile, according to a poll conducted by TNS Media Gallup, support for Serbia's accession to the EU fell from 49 percent in August to 42 percent last month.
Radomirovic says that the citizens' support to the EU will probably decline further due to problems with Kosovo, the uncertainty of admission and the possibility of restoring the visa regime.
"I think this government did not count on great support from the citizens to EU integration in the first place, hence its policy will not change. The goal remains the opening of membership talks, but I'm not sure the government will be in a hurry to achieve it," Radomirovic said.