BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union urged Serbia and Kosovo to improve their relations to bolster their chances of joining the bloc, after the World Court found Kosovo’s unilateral secession from Serbia legal on Thursday.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the bloc was ready to help Belgrade and Pristina hold a dialogue.
“The EU is ... ready to facilitate a process of dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade. This dialogue would be to promote cooperation, achieve progress on the path to Europe and improve the lives of the people,” she said in a statement.
Both Serbia and Kosovo hope to join the EU one day but face years of difficult reforms before they are ready. Reconciliation between them will be vital as well, Ashton said.
“Good neighborly relations, regional cooperation and dialogue are the foundations on which the EU is built,” she said.
Serbia lost control of Kosovo in 1999 when a 78-day NATO bombing campaign ended a two-year war between Serbia and Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, and put in place a U.N. administration and a NATO-monitored ceasefire.
In 2008 Kosovo declared independence, prompting Belgrade to seek an opinion on the legality of the move from The Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ).
With the verdict out of the way, observers said, Serbia should be able to focus on mending ties with its neighbors, although Belgrade’s initial reaction was defiant. It rejected any chances of ever recognizing Kosovo.
“(The ruling) should make it perhaps easier for people in Serbia to accept ... they won’t be able to turn the clock back,” said Anthony Dworkin of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
“It should be an incentive to people in Serbia who are serious about EU aspirations to go ahead and get a deal.”
Belgrade has already applied to join the EU but progress has been stalled at times because of opposition from some EU governments, concerned about its efforts to cut ties with its violent past.
It was able to forge closer ties with the EU in recent months when the United Nations war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia said Belgrade’s cooperation with its investigations had improved.
But EU diplomats say Serbia will need to make more effort to hunt remaining fugitives suspected of war crimes and could run into more opposition from some EU governments if it fails to forge dialogue with Kosovo.
Serb Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said Belgrade would continue to try to meet EU expectations.
“To become a member of the European Union is a strategic aim and we are not going to give it up,” he said in The Hague.
Progress may depend on recognizing Kosovo, observers said.
“Ultimately ... for stability in the western Balkans, Serbia should by its own free will recognize Kosovo and unblock its access to the EU, U.N. and other multilateral institutions,” said Sabine Freizer of the International Crisis Group.
Kosovo is not yet ready to apply for EU membership, EU diplomats say, but is receiving millions of euros from the bloc to help it prepare.
Nearly 70 states have recognized Kosovo’s independence since 2008 but a handful of EU governments still oppose it.
Some two million Albanians and 120,000 Serbs live in the province, troubled by corruption, crime and poor rule of law.