Under pressure from the EU, Serbia and Kosovo have agreed to a normalization of relations, although not to diplomatic ties. But even so, many hurdles remain on the path toward Europe.
Both sides have spent months on this agreement. Just a few days ago, their tenth round of negotiations also seemed poised to fail. If this had happened, Serbia's path to Europe would be blocked for years.
The upcoming Luxembourg meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday (22.04.2013) served as a deadline. The European prospects of Serbia and Kosovo depend on their evaluation. Without a normalization of relations between the two Balkan peoples, there would be no opportunity for rapprochement with the EU. This time pressure perhaps gave the two sides a push.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton hailed the agreement: "What we are seeing is a step away from the past and, for both of them, a step closer to Europe." Serbia can now expect that the EU heads of state and government will give it a date for the opening of accession negotiations by June. And Kosovo can hope for a start to negotiations on a stabilization and association agreement, a precursor to accession talks.
Kosovo's fears of a state within a state
The decisive issue is the status of Serbs living in northern Kosovo. There are an estimated 40-50,000 Serbs there and they make up 95 percent of the local population, although in all of Kosovo, Serbs account for just over 5 percent of the total inhabitants, who otherwise are overwhelmingly ethnic Albanians. Without strong autonomy they feel helpless. But Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci had belittled their autonomy efforts at the start of negotiations on Friday (19.04.2013).
Thaci's government insists on the "elimination of all illegal Serbian security structures in the north, so that we can continue our work to create a unified legal and security system throughout Kosovo." In other words, the Serbs should fit in with the Kosovar government. Serbian-dominated municipalities should "have no executive or legislative powers and form no third administrative level." Kosovo feared a state within a state. This conflict of interests had to be overcome.
NATO as a security guarantee
Whether that has really happened, may be doubted. This is evident in the two leaders' descriptions of the situation. Thaci proudly told the press: "The signing of this agreement marks the recognition of Kosovo's sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is the basis for the normalization of relations between two countries and two peoples."
He believes he has achieved his goal of statehood. But Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic indirectly questioned this. The agreement no longer contains the point that the two sides will not block each other in international institutions. What was meant was the United Nations. The non-blocking requirement now refers only to the European level. That is more than before, but Serbia is avoiding the question of recognizing Kosovo.
Moreover, as Dacic said, "all demands of the Serbian side have been met." This applies, for example, to Serbian special rights regarding the police in northern Kosovo. He also said it had been accepted, "that the future Kosovo army may not be present in northern Kosovo."
Here, it will depend on the details, which have not been published. It seems clear, however, that NATO will continue to play a role in Kosovo. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said: "We are prepared to play our role if we can contribute to finding final solutions." NATO is already present in Kosovo with thousands of soldiers.
No implementation, no progress
Both negotiators now have to "sell" the agreement at home. In Brussels, they only signed it. The two governments must agree in writing by Monday. And this is by no means assured. But perhaps the greatest resistance could come from the Kosovo Serbs themselves - from those with most at stake in the negotiations. And that could bring the implementation of the agreement into question.
EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy said immediately after the ruling that the key now was to achieve "concrete results in the implementation; there is no shortcut." He emphasized that the criteria had to be met that would allow the EU to launch accession negotiations with Serbia and a stabilization and association agreement with Kosovo.
But, in the end, if words are all the two sides have, no matter how historic, Serbia and Kosovo will hardly come closer to the EU.
The Dutch government says the week-long operation to recover wreckage from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 is complete. Continued fighting around the broad debris field had delayed the operation.
The Italian coast guard and navy have intercepted hundreds of migrants from the central Mediterranean since Thursday. Meanwhile in Cyprus, authorities have rescued a large group of Syrian refugees heading for Europe.
German intelligence sources say some 60 Germans have died fighting for the jihadist group "Islamic State." Many others have returned from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq - and now pose a threat at home.