Editorial: A landmark deal in the Balkans

Tension between Serbia and Kosovo is one of Europe’s more intractable problems, yet the two countries have struck a tenative deal

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A breakthrough at last in the Balkans. After two years of effort, the governments of Serbia and Kosovo have struck a tentative deal to “normalise” relations – paving the way for both to join the EU.

Progress has not been easy. Indeed, tension between the two countries is one of the continent’s more intractable problems. The former Serbian province of Kosovo ceased to be ruled from Belgrade in 1999 – following the Nato bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic – and declared independence in 2008. But although the majority of the population is Albanian, the region holds a central place in Serbian myth and history and is still home to perhaps 140,000 ethnic Serbs, about a third of them in the north. The result is an ethnic partition of the territory, a portion of Kosovo still controlled de facto by Serbia, and sporadic outbreaks of violence. Meanwhile, although nearly 100 countries now recognise Kosovo’s existence, Belgrade has vowed never to do so.

Now, however, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic has agreed to cede Serbia’s claim of legal authority at least, in return for Pristina’s granting a degree of autonomy to four Serb-controlled areas of the north. And, as a consequence, the European Commission yesterday gave the go-ahead for membership talks with Serbia.

Plaudits all round, then, in particular for Baroness Ashton, the much-derided EU foreign policy chief who personally brokered the sometimes tortuous negotiations. Nor is the pact only a promising move towards lasting peace. It is also a reminder of the considerable diplomatic force that the hope of EU membership can bring to bear – a reminder that is all the more welcome given the identity crisis provoked by the travails of the euro.

The hard work is far from over. Hardline nationalists on both sides have already denounced the deal and are unlikely to back down without quite a fight. For all the complications on the ground, though, the political deal alone is a ground-breaking step forward.

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