A key new agreement on disputed border crossings between Serbia and Kosovo will help quiet objections to Serbia's candidacy for European Union membership, the country's chief negotiator said Saturday.
The accord struck on Friday creates joint border crossing controls in northern Kosovo to be shared by Serb and Kosovo authorities. For months, Kosovo's minority Serbs have blocked roads and battled with authorities in the tense region to reject attempts by the Kosovo government to impose its authority.
The EU is divided on on whether to grant Serbia the status of candidate for membership, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that recent clashes at the border between Serb nationalists and NATO peacekeepers in which 50 troops were injured showed that Serbia had not yet fulfilled the proper conditions.
The latest deal could significantly ease tensions by establishing joint border control posts comprising Serb, Kosovar and EU police and customs officials.
Serb negotiator Borko Stefanovic said the agreement was the thorniest issue in talks between Kosovo and Serbia, which has refused to accept its former province's 2008 declaration of independence.
"Serbia's position has been strengthened because it demonstrated its readiness to engage in dialogue and resolve the most difficult questions before us," he said.
Kosovo authorities welcomed the agreement as one that establishes "cooperation between two countries." The country wants the deal to back its claim to statehood by setting up customs along its border with Serbia.
By "accepting the agreement Serbia has practically recognized an interstate border with Kosovo," the government said in a statement.
Government leaders are scheduled to discuss the expansion of the 27-member EU at their forthcoming summit on Thursday and Friday.
EU officials say it is not necessary for Serbia to recognize Kosovo in order to advance its application for membership in the bloc, but the EU insists that technical talks on practical issues will ease tensions between the two rival states.
While symbolically important, formal candidacy is just a step toward tough negotiations on accession, which normally last five or more years.
"After this latest accord (on border crossings) it will be much more difficult for anyone to argue that Serbia has been uncooperative on the road to the European Union," Stefanovic said.
EU mediator Robert Cooper also struck a positive note, but said the agreement must be put into practice "in a sensitive way."
"Our objective is to make peoples lives easier and not more difficult," he said.
Talks began in March and agreement has been reached on a number of practical issues such as free travel, and recognizing each others' school diplomas and land registers. They are set to continue later this month.
Outstanding issues include arranging for Kosovo to be represented in regional forums, as well as linking telecommunications networks and power grids.
Slobodan Lekic can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/slekich