Berlin: European leaders will try to bring bitter foes Serbia and Kosovo back to the negotiating table at a regional summit in Berlin on Monday, hoping to reboot a dialogue over one of the Balkans' thorniest disputes.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are hosting the neighbours, whose relationship has taken a turn for the worse in recent months, alongside other Western Balkans leaders and EU members Croatia and Slovenia.
The gathering will centre on the "stability of the region, with a particular focus on finding a way to relaunch the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo," the French presidency said in a briefing ahead of the summit. The Macron-Merkel initiative comes after EU-led talks between Serbia and Kosovo ground to a halt last year.
The nub of the dispute is Belgrade's denial of the independence of Kosovo, a former province that broke away in a bloody 1998-99 war. The Brussels-led dialogue collapsed several months after talk of possible border changes between the neighbours, as a way to reach an accord, triggered a stinging backlash last summer.
Critics warned that redrawing the map would be a risky business in the fragile Balkans, a region still recovering from its 1990s wars. Then came a series of diplomatic clashes between Pristina and Belgrade that deepened their hostility, in particular Kosovo's decision to levy a 100-percent tariff on Serbian goods in November.
A stalemate has ensued. Kosovo's Prime Minister says he will keep the tax until Belgrade shows openness to recognising independence, while Serbia says it will not talk until the tariff is removed. Downplaying expectations for a major breakthrough on Monday, German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said the summit is "primarily about an exchange of views." "How far we can get during the meeting is something that I cannot foretell," she added.
The French presidency also assured that the summit was not an effort to replace the European Commission-led process, whose future is uncertain as EU elections loom, but only to "promote exchanges". As for whether the land-swap proposal would be discussed Monday, Demmer said Germany remains "sceptical about border changes as part of a solution, in so far as they could pose risks for the region."
While the exact details of the plan have never been laid out, local media and analysts assume the land swap would see Kosovo's Serb-dominated north traded for a southern valley in Serbia that is mainly ethnic-Albanian, like the rest of Kosovo.
Washington and some EU officials appeared open to discussing such a deal, but Germany has been one of the clearest critics of any border changes, which many worry would further segregate the region along ethnic lines. Ahead of the Berlin summit, both Serbia and Kosovo took a cautious line. "At this moment, I don't understand how and what to talk with Pristina about," Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said last week during a visit to Beijing.
But he added that he has "always respected" Merkel and Macron and that was "sure they are smarter than me and will figure out something." In Kosovo, President Hashim Thaci said the summit "might open up opportunities, but it might be disappointing as well."
While Thaci is in favour of revoking the tariff, his Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj has been intransigent despite heavy EU and US pressure. "No tax will be revoked either at this summit or at any other summit," Haradinaj reiterated last week.