By Andrew Rettman
Kosovo and Serbia, with EU and US support, have ended a potentially explosive dispute on car number-plates.
Under the deal, Nato soldiers will guard crossing points between a Serb enclave in northern Kosovo and Serbia from Saturday (2 October).
And local officials will put stickers on car plates to cover up national insignia until a more lasting solution is found over the next six months by a special, EU-chaired "working group".
"After two days of intense negotiations, an agreement on de-escalation and the way forward has just been reached," the EU's special envoy to the Western Balkans, Miroslav Lajčák, said in Brussels on Thursday.
"It's good for the whole region," European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen also said, while visiting Belgrade.
The deal was "fair", Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić said, adding: "I would like ... to find more lasting solutions that would not include recognition of Kosovo".
Tensions recently flared when Kosovo sent special police to the border to stop Serb-plate cars in protest at Serbia's treatment of Kosovar-plate vehicles, while Serbia sent armoured cars and warplanes in response.
"The rapidness of the onset of the tensions was a little bit surprising," Gabriel Escobar, a senior US official dealing with the Western Balkans, also said in Brussels on Thursday.
"Ethnic tensions in the region are as high as they've been in a long time, and ... it needs the kind of energetic diplomacy and engagement that we had in the '90s," he added.
Escobar spoke to press after helping Lajčák to broker the car deal in talks with Kosovo and Serb officials.
"The purpose of my trip was to show support for the [EU-brokered] dialogue and make it clear that we see the dialogue as the place where these issues should be resolved," he said.
His supporting role marked a change from the former US administration of president Donald Trump, which sidelined the EU by holding its own Kosovo-Serbia talks in Washington.
The US re-engagement with the EU on the Western Balkans comes amid talk of a new transatlantic rift over a US defence deal with Australia, which destroyed a huge French contract.
But when asked if Western allies risked going separate ways, Escobar said: "No, no, no."
"Nato's still the cornerstone of our security policy ... Even though many of our challenges are outside of Europe, the core of our partners are in Europe and that won't change," he said.
For their part, EU leaders are to meet Western Balkan ones in Brdo, Slovenia, next week to reaffirm their "unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkans", according to a draft declaration.
But for all the nice words, enlargement is being held up by a row between Bulgaria and North Macedonia and by Danish, Dutch, and French scepticism more broadly speaking.
EU states might even suspend visa-free travel due to a recent spike in "unfounded" asylum applications.
And for his part, Escobar warned: "The message that the [EU] door is open needs to be broadcast more widely".
"People in the region sometimes don't hear that message or hear the message that the door is closed," he said.
The US official celebrated what EU enlargement had already achieved.
"We can't ignore the fact that enlargement pushed the borders of freedom and democracy as far east as we could," Escobar said.
"The real story of the Balkans is dynamic economic growth," he added.
He played down concerns that Serbia was too close to Russia.
"Aside from gas, they [the Russians] provide almost no exports. They import very little. They are not even close to being one of the top 10 investors in the Serbian economy," he said.
And he predicted that those five EU states which did not recognise Kosovo would reconsider their position if Serbia recognised Kosovo in the end.
"I'm convinced that the five non-recognisers are waiting for the outcome of the [EU-brokered] dialogue before they declare themselves," Escobar said. /EUobserver, October 1, 2021