EU urges Kosovo not to rush towards independence

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union countries urged the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo on Monday not to rush into a declaration of independence, but seek consensus in the international community.

Former guerrilla Hashim Thaci, expected to become prime minister of the majority ethnic Albanian province after Saturday elections, said parliament would declare independence after a December 10 deadline for international mediation efforts.

The United States firmly backs independence for Kosovo, a move that Russia has blocked in the U.N. Security Council.

The EU is divided, but British Europe Minister Jim Murphy said after talks among EU ministers that “well above 20” EU states supported recognizing Kosovo’s independence.

“Kosovo should have her independence (but) it shouldn’t be an unmanaged unilateral declaration. It should be one that is coordinated with the international community,” he said.

Several states neighboring the Balkans plus Germany and Spain have been most hesitant to back a unilateral declaration.

German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier told reporters an agreed solution was better for everyone, including Russia, than a unilateral declaration only partially recognised.

Wolfgang Ischinger, the German diplomat leading mediation alongside U.S. and Russian officials, is due to meet Serb and Kosovo Albanian leaders in Brussels on Tuesday.

Few participants hold out much hope for a breakthrough. A mass boycott of Saturday’s parliamentary elections by Kosovo Serbs -- in protest against the wide support for independence among Kosovo Albanian politicians -- underlined the divide.


Portugal’s Foreign Minister Luis Amado told a news conference Ischinger would discuss an interim deal with the two sides that ignored the issue of independence.

Such a “status-neutral” agreement would try to regulate relations between Pristina and Belgrade without pre-judging any future move to decide Kosovo’s final status.

But a diplomat from an EU state in favor of Kosovo independence said that idea was unworkable because Belgrade and Moscow would only agree to it if EU states guaranteed not to recognize a unilateral declaration.

Ischinger told a breakfast conference mediators had explored nearly every known option to settle the Kosovo issue.

“Regardless of how exactly this process will end... it is clear no one will be able to say that this was not a meaningful and intense and working negotiating process.”

Asked what would happen if there was no deal by December 10, Amado said: “We will be here and the world will not finish. We will need to evaluate the situation and take decisions.”

Serbia has offered broad autonomy, but the Kosovo Albanians say they will accept nothing less than independence. Western diplomats are concerned that the Serbs and their Russian allies will declare the mediation process a sham after it finishes.

Before leaving for the Brussels talks, Thaci was asked about the concerns some EU ministers had expressed over his promise of a speedy declaration of independence, and qualified his remarks.

“The declaration of independence will come in coordination with the United States and the European Union,” he said.

The EU wants to avoid a repeat of its dilemma in the 1990s, when internal splits over how to deal with the Balkan wars showed its ineffectiveness as a foreign policy player.

Separately on Monday, EU defense ministers agreed to maintain at 2,500 the EU military presence in Bosnia where tensions over Kosovo are exacerbating a dispute among Serb, Muslim and Croat factions. A statement from the foreign ministers expressed “grave concern” about the situation.

Additional reporting by Paul Taylor, Ilona Wissenbach, David Brunnstrom and Ingrid Melander in Brussels, Matthew Robinson in Pristina; Editing by Michael Winfrey