October 20, 2015 / 5:22 PM / 2 years ago

EU to sign pre-membership accord with Kosovo - sources

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union is expected to sign an agreement with Kosovo next week paving the way for the accession of the Balkan country to the bloc, a move seen as also helpful in bringing Serbia closer to the EU, officials said.

People in a car wave the Kosovo flag as they pass a sign decorated with paintings of flags of the 98 countries that have recognised Kosovo's independence, in Pristina February 17, 2013. REUTERS/Hazir Reka/Files

The move may cause concern in some EU member states struggling with internal separatist movements. Spain, Cyprus, Romania, Greece and Slovakia have not recognized Kosovo since its secession from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after its majority ethnic Albanians waged a guerrilla uprising against Belgrade.

But this did not prevent them in the past giving their authorisation to the start of EU negotiations with Kosovo, in order to help quell nationalist tensions in the Balkans.

Kosovo concluded talks with the EU in July 2014 for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, a step on the path to eventual EU membership that can carry economic benefits.

Next week the EU foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn will sign the accord, two sources familiar with the talks told Reuters, and it is to take effect next year.

“The signature of the agreement will reinforce Kosovo’s European perspective and also help domestic stabilisation,” an EU official said.

This comes despite Kosovo’s scant progress in key policy sectors. “The rule of law in Kosovo, including judicial independence, and limited results in the fight against organised crime and corruption, remains a major concern,” the European Commission said in its last report on Kosovo a year ago.

A new step towards EU membership for Kosovo is also a matter of concern in Serbia, which still formally regards Kosovo as part of its territory. To allay Serbian worries, the EU seems ready to make concessions to Belgrade.

“I am confident that the first two chapters with Serbia (for accession to the EU) can be opened by the end of the year,” a top EU official told Reuters.

Chapters are policy sectors where a candidate to European Union membership has to show alignment with EU rules before it can join the bloc.

For Serbia to join the EU, 35 chapters on topics ranging from fundamental rights to economic issues need to be opened and successfully closed with the unanimous support of member states.

Serbian and Kosovar authorities were not immediately available for comment.

Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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