EU expects Serbia, Kosovo leaders to back deal to normalise ties

FILE PHOTO: Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti at Munich Security Conference

By Andrew Gray

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Leaders of former wartime enemies Serbia and Kosovo are expected to endorse a Western-backed deal on Monday to put their relations on a more normal footing, a senior European Union official said.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, almost a decade after war brought an end to Serbian rule. But Serbia still regards Kosovo as a breakaway province and flare-ups between the Balkan neighbours over the years have stoked fears of a return to war.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti are expected to sign up to the plan at a meeting in Brussels on Monday hosted by the EU. The bloc has led a diplomatic push behind the plan, which also has U.S. backing.

"We expect the two leaders to endorse the proposal," the senior EU official said on Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity. The EU does not expect leaders to debate the plan but is open to discussions on its implementation, the official said.

Both leaders have signalled qualified support for the plan but complained about aspects of it. Neither of their governments commented on whether the plan would be endorsed on Monday.

The text has not been published by either government or the EU. But it includes mutual recognition of official documents, increased financial aid and other measures to improve the lives of people in both Serbia and Kosovo, according to the EU.

Kurti has said the plan amounts to de facto recognition of Kosovo by Serbia. Vucic has insisted this is not the case.

"Kosovo's allies have designed it as a package that will advance Kosovo's membership in the international system and which also includes de facto recognition (from Serbia), all of this based on the United Nations Charter," Kurti told Kosovo's parliament on Thursday.

Serbian Defence Minister Milos Vucevic said Vucic would not sign any document recognising Kosovo as an independent state. "He did not recognise it and he will not recognize it," he said in a live TV broadcast.

One contentious issue in Monday's talks is expected to be a planned association of Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo.

Leaders of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority argue such a body would give Belgrade an outsize influence in their country while Serbs say it is needed to protect their rights.

(Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci and Aleksandar Vasovic; Writing by Andrew Gray; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)