EU ministers voice concerns on Kosovo, Serbia border change, land swap plans

EU ministers voice concerns on Kosovo, Serbia border change, land swap plans

EU ministers voiced concern Friday about talk of potential border changes between Kosovo and Serbia, warning it could destabilize a region still simmering with ethnic tensions.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci have suggested that "border adjustments" might be on the negotiating table in EU-brokered talks to overcome a bitter diplomatic stalemate between the two sides.

Thaci says he rejects the idea of dividing the territory along ethnic lines, but he says he is open to discussing "a correction" of borders during EU-mediated peace talks with Serbia.

Some Serbian government officials have suggested a possible solution could be a land swap based on where ethnic Serb and Albanian minorities are concentrated — Kosovo's northern Mitrovica region for Serbia's Presevo Valley.

Thaci told The Associated Press early this month that there would be no "division, but a correction of borders" that could possibly make the Presevo Valley a part of Kosovo. He did not say whether that would involve a trade of northern Mitrovica, where the majority of Kosovo Serbs live.

But at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Vienna, several nations raised fears about any efforts to redraw the map along ethnic lines in a region still haunted by the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia.

"We do not believe that discussions about an exchange of territory between Kosovo and Serbia are appropriate," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"We believe that this can tear open too many old wounds in the population. And therefore we are very skeptical at this point."

Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl echoed his remarks.

"Border changes, as we have seen time and again, have brought their problems," she said, adding that the focus should be on creating national rather than ethnic identities.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she had seen "very strong support for the dialogue" between Vucic and Thaci, who she will both meet for talks in Brussels next week.

Mogherini declined to comment on either side's specific positions, but stressed that "European history is based on overcoming and preventing any idea of ethnically pure nation states".

"We're working seriously on something difficult, challenging, not impossible, but still not there yet," she said.

Both Serbia and Kosovo are seeking to join the EU but Belgrade's refusal to recognize the 2008 independence of its former province has hampered its aspirations.

The ethnic Albanian majority region broke away from Serbia a decade after a bloody guerrilla conflict in the late 1990s and subsequent NATO intervention in 1999 to stop a bloody Serb crackdown on Albanian separatists in Kosovo. Belgrade wants to keep strong links with the Serb minority in the north.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic was at the Vienna meeting along with representatives of other nations seeking to join the EU.

"Serbia is committed to reaching a compromise between Pristina and Belgrade because this would increase stability in the region and also it would open our path towards the European Union, but we are not sure still when it is going to happen," he said.

Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini said talks between Serbia and Kosovo were "positive" but a land swap "could be a bit risky if it's not prepared properly".

"It's a very complicated matter. The history from the war is quite heavy and of course we must be very careful not to cause new problems," he told reporters.

His Luxembourg counterpart, Jean Asselborn, said "I'm warning against cutting things into pieces."

"This can let's say have a very negative effect on other countries in this region. That's why you need to be very careful here," he told reporters.

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said that it's up to Belgrade and Pristina to decide.

"I believe it's up to them to establish what might be the elements of an agreement," he said. "It's not up to the European Union to provide guidelines on what should be in it. We are trying above all to support their discussions."

Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor-Viorel Melescanu agreed, saying that once the two reach a clear understanding, this would "help us very much, other countries who have not recognized Kosovo, to arrive at a final decision about it."

Kosovo is recognized as a nation by more than 100 countries, but Serbia and five EU countries — Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain — refuse to do so. Spain, for example, fears that such a move might encourage Catalan or Basque separatists.

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