EU warns Serbia and Kosovo against returning to the past

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union warns Serbia and Kosovo Monday that they are on the edge of a precipice and must resolve their vehicle license plate dispute before next week or face the prospect of returning to their violent past.

Long-simmering tensions between Serbia and its former province have intensified in recent weeks following the Kosovo government’s decision to ban Serbian-issued license plates. On November 5, 10 Serbian legislators, 10 prosecutors and 576 police officers in the Mitrovica region in northern Kosovo resigned following the move.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said their resignations had left police stations and courts unstaffed, and that “in this vacuum, the worst can happen. Both parties therefore need to be more flexible.

Under the ban, about 6,300 ethnic Serbs with cars with license plates deemed illegal in Kosovo were to be warned until November 21 and then fined for the next two months. From April 21, they would only be allowed to drive with temporary local plates.

“We cannot reach this date without an agreement or we will be on the brink of a dangerous situation,” Borrell told reporters – referring to November 21 – after chairing a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

He said Kosovo negotiators were due in Brussels on Monday evening and he was ready to convene a meeting of leaders from Serbia and Kosovo to hammer out a deal by next week.

The issue of Kosovo’s independence sparked a 1998-99 war in which an estimated 13,000 people died. Serbia has launched a brutal crackdown to curb a separatist rebellion by ethnic Albanians in the territory. NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to end the war.

Kosovo split unilaterally from Serbia in 2008. The Serbian government, with the support of China and Russia, refused to recognize Kosovo’s statehood. The United States and most of its European allies recognize Kosovo as an independent country.

Serbia and Kosovo must normalize their relations to join the European Union. But EU-mediated talks aimed at helping them have stalled, raising concerns of greater instability more than two decades after the conflict.

“They are now at a crossroads. They have to decide which direction they want to go. Towards the European Union, or towards the past,” Borrell said.

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