BRUSSELS – Serbia and Kosovo again failed to clinch a deal to normalise ties and ease tension in the Balkans after lengthy talks brokered by the European Union lasting through Wednesday until Thursday.
"Today has been a very long and intensive day," said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at the close of negotiations that began early Wednesday but ended after midnight.
"I said last time that agreement was close, that the differences were narrow, but deep. I can say with real confidence today that the differences are narrow and very shallow," Ashton added in a statement.
Saying there were "some hours left" ahead of a key EU ministers' meeting Monday that will focus on the Western Balkans, Ashton hoped both sides "will reflect on whether they can take the final steps necessary to finish this agreement and to move their people forward into the future."
Ashton in a surprise move called the Brussels talks between Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci in an 11th-hour bid to wrest a deal though EU-brokered talks two weeks earlier broke down after two years of efforts.
An agreement between the two is necessary in the coming days if Belgrade is to win endorsement from a June EU summit to open much hoped-for negotiations to become a member of the bloc.
No progress before next week could indefinitely delay Serbia's integration into the EU. And at the close of the talks, each side blamed the other.
Pristina, which unilaterally declared independence from Belgrade in 2008, is eyeing an association pact with the EU as a reward for normalising ties if a deal is done.
Speaking to Serbia's RTS television, Dacic roundly blamed Kosovo for the latest breakdown.
"Belgrade was ready to accept the deal," he said, "but Pristina conditioned it with (a request for Kosovo) membership in the United Nations.
Belgrade continues to refuse to accept Kosovo's independence, now recognised by some 100 nations, including the United States, but not by five of the 27 EU nations – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain. Kosovo's premier Thaci said that "Serbia has not accepted a deal today, but I hope it will accept it in the coming days.
"This is the third time Serbia rejects it while Pristina accepts it," he added.
Marko Djuric, advisor to Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, told the country's state news agency Tanjug that the negotiations could continue "but the date has not been set."
EU power Germany this week pointed the finger at Serbia for scuttling past talks and said that failing a breakthrough it will vote against launching EU entry talks with Serbia at the June summit – but back the signature of a new EU pact with Kosovo.
"When one country delivers results and another doesn't, the one that is taking steps... that is doing its homework must not be held responsible for the lack of good will by the other," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Tuesday.
"An agreement on starting negotiations on Serbia joining the EU, which it would like to see this summer, will be significantly delayed if it does not reach a deal with Kosovo," Westerwelle added.
An accord has floundered over the fate of 40,000 ethnic Serbs living in north Kosovo who refuse to recognise Pristina's 2008 declaration of independence.
Serbia wants Kosovo to agree to decentralised Serb "municipalities" in the northern enclave with own police and courts, the bottom line being guarantees that ethnic Serbs get fair representation in Kosovo.
Pristina however sees Belgrade meddling in Kosovo affairs through the Serb community and refuses to relinquish authority over the north.
Serbian media said on Wednesday that the EU was offering a compromise in which the northern Serbs would be guaranteed a fair share of regional and local police chiefs as well as the presidency of a regional court.
In Belgrade, state TV RTS said that under EU offers of a deal NATO would be put in charge of supervising security. – afp