PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Serbia and Kosovo must recognize each other in order to join the European Union, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Friday said as he expressed support for quicker integration of the Western Balkans into the bloc amid the war in Ukraine.
Scholz, on a visit to the Western Balkans, also pressed Serbia to join Western sanctions against Russia despite its historic and current ties to Moscow, which supplies most of Serbia's energy needs.
“It is important that we all together show solidarity and help Ukraine defend against the aggression,” Scholz said during a joint press conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade. “It is our expectation that these sanctions must be supported by all those who are candidates for EU membership."
Vucic said Scholz requested in a “decisive, clear and strict" way that Serbia join the sanctions.
While Serbia is formally a candidate for EU membership, it has maintained friendly ties with its fellow Slavic ally Russia despite the war. Russia has backed Serbia's effort to retain claim on Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008 with Western backing.
Earlier Friday in Kosovo's capital of Pristina, Scholz called for a clear commitment to reaching a lasting political solution to the long-standing dispute over Kosovo’s independence that has remained a source of tensions in the Balkans.
Scholz said Russia’s war in Ukraine made the region’s stability even more important. Kosovo and Serbia have held normalization talks facilitated by the EU for years, but the talks have had little impact.
“It is clear that an agreement must ultimately also clear up the question of the recognition of Kosovo, because it is not conceivable that two countries that don’t recognize each other become members of the EU,” Scholz said in Pristina.
Later in Belgrade, Scholz added that “our view on the Kosovo question isn’t new. It’s been known for a long time."
But Vucic said Scholz’s remarks on mutual recognition was “the first time that we hear” this was a condition for EU membership, and that Serbia must consider what to do next.
“We have never heard from anyone in Europe that they are asking for mutual recognition,” he said, adding defiantly that “as much as you like (the territorial) integrity of Ukraine, that much we love Serbia's (territorial integrity).”
Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, declared independence a decade after a brutal 1998-1999 war between separatist ethnic Albanian rebels and Serb forces. The war ended after a 78-day NATO air campaign that drove Serb troops out.
Most Western nations have recognized Kosovo’s sovereignty, but Serbia and its allies Russia and China do not.
The six Western Balkan countries are at different stages of their EU membership aspirations. Serbia and Montenegro have started full negotiations, while Albania and North Macedonia have faced delays in the EU launching their talks. Kosovo and Bosnia are in the early stages of the membership process.
Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti earlier said the country would apply for EU candidacy status, which Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have done. Kurti described joining the EU as “the only future.”
Scholz next flew to Greece, where he attended a dinner following a meeting of southeastern European leaders hosted by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in the northern city of Thessaloniki. He was later due to travel to North Macedonia and Bulgaria.
Mitsotakis called for an “active commitment” from the EU that the Western Balkans' accession bids will be accelerated.
“I ... propose 2033 as the target date for all the countries (of the Western Balkans) to enter the EU,” he said. “It’s an ambitious target but I think it can be realistic if the idea of expansion returns to the union’s core values.”
In Tallinn, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer urged Friday that Western Balkan countries seeking EU membership should not be forgotten as Ukraine knocks at the EU door.
“We must give these states the same chance as Ukraine. They need this just as urgently and have been waiting for decades in some cases,” Nehammer said.
European leaders are expected to consider Ukraine’s bid for EU candidate status at the end of June.
Semini reported from Tirana, Albania; Geir Moulson in Berlin, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Philip-Moritz Jenne in Vienna contributed. Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia, and Nicholas Paphitis from Athens, Greece.
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Florent Bajrami And Llazar Semini, The Associated Press