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EU Foreign Ministers' Agenda Topped By Kosovo's Future

Serbia has said it will not accept Kosovo's statehood
BRUSSELS -- Kosovo tops the agenda at the European Union foreign ministers' meeting on July 26 following last week's ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that Pristina's 2008 declaration of independence did not violate international law.

With Serbia remaining adamant that it will not accept Kosovo's statehood, Brussels is now looking at ways of facilitating a reconciliation between Belgrade and Pristina -- both of which have been promised eventual membership in the bloc.

Diplomats say the EU's high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, was drafting a letter to both governments last week inviting them to Brussels for direct talks under EU mediation.

Although it is helping Kosovo rebuild its economy and justice system, the EU has been compelled to remain formally neutral on the country's status because five of its member states -- Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Cyprus -- do not recognize Kosovo's independence.

All five fear encouraging separatists within their own borders. With the exception of Spain and Slovakia, the skeptics are also predominantly Orthodox Christian countries.

Cyprus Concerns

EU officials say Ashton's statement reacting to the ICJ ruling on July 22 followed hours of wrangling with Romania and Cyprus, who wanted her to water down Brussels' support for Kosovo.

Cypriot Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou, speaking to reporters before the meeting, said the court's decision was "very limited and restricted to a specific question when it comes, let's say, to the procedural part of the declaration."

"At the same time we believe that anything that affects the territorial integrity of a country has to be dealt through negotiations and discussions, and not through [unilateral declarations of independence," Kyprianou said.

Eventually, Ashton's statement said both Serbia and Kosovo's future "lies in the European Union" without making reference to their status. The document also said dialogue between the two would "promote cooperation, achieve progress on the path to Europe and improve the lives of the people," as well as stability in the region.

This language is likely to be echoed by the EU ministers on July 26.

It is also likely that there will to pressure from within the EU for firmer backing for Serbia's integration with the bloc, which has been impeded so far by the country's inability to apprehend fugitive war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic, as well as its refusal to cooperate over Kosovo.

In June, EU ministers unblocked ratification of the Stability and Association Agreement the bloc has signed with Serbia, potentially clearing the way for membership talks. Belgrade formally applied for EU membership in December 2009.

EU ministers will also discuss the tense situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the ICJ ruling many fear could encourage secessionist tendencies in the Republika Srpska, the country's Bosnian Serb entity.

Ashton and Stefan Fuele, the EU enlargement and neighborhood commissioner, are seeking to entrench the EU's presence in Bosnia by merging the offices of the EU special representative and head of the EU delegation in the country, diplomats say.

The bloc also wants to provide incentives for Bosnia's fractious political elite to cooperate by attaching more stringent conditions to financial aid and by threatening travel bans and other sanctions on officials who undermine the Dayton peace accord.

Engaging Saakashvili

Ashton will also brief the member states about her recent visit to Georgia.

According to diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity, Brussels is finding President Mikheil Saakashvili increasingly difficult to engage. Ashton is reportedly troubled by the Georgian leader's lack of realism in relations with both the EU and Russia.

Last month, the EU extended the mandate of its monitoring mission on the country's borders with separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia for another year, but diplomats say a debate appears inevitable sooner or later on the limits to the EU's commitment to the country.

Following up on a decision made at the EU summit in June, the foreign ministers are also set to impose a new list of sanctions on Iran.

Acting Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere said, "We want to be able to encourage Iran to come to the negotiation table. It's a position on which we know that dialogue can be the solution for the problems."

"But at the same time, since it is a dual track, if dialogue is not possible sanctions can be necessary," Vanackere said.

The new measures, designed to curb Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, will target Tehran's energy sector in a bid to deny it new investments and know-how.

The ministers will also address the situation in Gaza, but are not expected to issue a new statement. The EU wants Israel to further ease its blockade of Gaza and to begin talks with the Palestinian Authority with a view to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

The EU is also looking into ways to step up financial aid to the Palestinians, with funds provided by Arab governments dwindling in recent months.

The ministers are also expected to issue separate statements on the situation Kyrgyzstan and on the European Neighborhood Policy.