European leaders urge Serbia to 'de facto' recognise Kosovo

FILE PHOTO: European Union flags fly outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The leaders of France, Germany and Italy called on Serbia on Friday to "deliver on de-facto recognition" of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 but which Belgrade has continued to regard as its province.

In a statement the day after holding talks with both sides, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said it was time for the Balkan neighbours to deliver on previous commitments.

Their move follows growing international concerns that the former wartime foes could return to open conflict following a series of violent incidents in recent months.

Much of the tension has focused on northern Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs form a majority. The rest of Kosovo is overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian.

In their statement, Macron, Scholz and Meloni repeated longstanding calls for Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to establish an association of Serb-majority municipalities in the north, giving local Serbs a degree of self-government.

Serbia and Kosovo have spent years talks mediated by the European Union to normalise their relations. As that process has stalled, leaders of the EU's three biggest countries have become increasingly involved in trying to get relations back on track.

While the EU has previously shied away from the politically sensitive question of de facto recognition of Kosovo, the three leaders made clear that was what they expected from Serbia, putting pressure on Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

"We call on Kosovo to launch the procedure to establish the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities in Kosovo as prescribed in the draft Statute, and on Serbia to deliver on de-facto recognition," the statement said.

Vucic has previously said he will neither formally nor informally recognise Kosovo.

But both Serbia and Kosovo aspire to join the EU one day and the bloc has insisted that the two will need to settle their differences before they can become members.

"Without progress in normalising relations, both sides risk missing important opportunities," the three leaders said.

(Reporting by Andrew Gray and Angelo Amante;Editing by Alistair Bell)