1 of 4 | A motorist takes off stickers covering the national markings on his car's license plate at the Jarinje border crossing between Kosovo and Serbia at Jarinje, Serbia, on November 1. Kosovo will begin implementing a plan to eliminate the use of Serbian car license plates. Photo by Djordje Savic/EPA-EFE
Nov. 21 (UPI) -- The leaders of Kosovo and Serbia failed to reach an agreement on a dispute over license plates during hours-long emergency talks hosted Monday by the European Union's top diplomat amid fears of violence escalating between the two countries.
The EU's high representative, Josep Borrell, had invited Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to Brussels for the talks amid rising tensions between the two countries one day before Kosovo was to start issuing fines to drivers of cars with Serbian license plates.
The issue over license plates goes back years, but was reignited recently as Kosovo ordered the thousands of Serbian-issued plates to be replaced,in a move to mirror Serbia's laws.
In protest, ethnic Serbs in the former Serbian province have resigned from public institutions, including some 600 police officers, leaving fewer than 50 Kosovo Albanian officers on the streets of Kosovo's northern Mitrovica region. Judges and local administrators have also resigned.
Last week, Borrell warned that if an agreement could not be reached by Tuesday "we will be on the edge of a dangerous situation," as the resignations have created a vacuum in which "the worst can happen."
The two leaders met Monday for eight hours of talks on an agreement proposed by the EU that Borrell said Vucic accepted but Kurti did not.
"This meeting today was about the responsibility of leaders to urgently de-escalate the situation, to ensure that peace and stability are re-established and, most importantly, will prevail -- avoiding a crisis with very grave consequences," Borrell said.
In a plea to both leaders, Borrell asked Kosovo to immediately suspend further implementation of its license plate order and Serbia to suspend issuing new license plates displaying denominations of Kosovo cities.
"This would allow space and time for the parties to look for a sustainable solution to the license plates issue, in the context of the normalization of relations, which is our most important objective," he said.
Kurti told reporters following the talks that they were close to an agreement on those two license plate issues, but it lacked any comment creating a pathway to lasting relations.
"This is not acceptable for us if it is not accompanied by what we were invited for, that is, the accordance to urgently engage to a final agreement for full normalization of relations," he said.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, about 10 years after the two held a bloody war of 1998-99.
Some 100 countries, including the United States, recognize Kosovo as an independent state, though Serbia does not.
A report from the U.S. Congressional Research Service states that some believe that the non-normalized relations between the two have impeded both of their prosperities and progress toward joining the EU, as well as imperils Western Balkan stability.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States is disappointed that no agreement Tuesday was made, while urging both world leaders to work with Borell to reach "a fair compromise."
"Both Prime Minister Kurti and President Vucic will need to make concessions to ensure that we do not jeopardize decades of hard-won peace in an already fragile region," he said in a statement.
"Both parties should refrain from taking provocative steps, fulfill their obligations under the EU Facilitated Dialogue and engage constructively to reach a sustainable solution."
The emergency meeting Monday followed similar talks in August aimed at de-escalating the situation.
Borrell said Monday that jumping from crisis to crisis prevents them from dealing with underlying issues.
"Since last summer, we have been preoccupied with permanent crisis management, trying to avoid one artificial deadline after another: From deadline to deadline, from crisis to crisis," he said.
"This means that we have not been able to address the real issue. The real issue is the normalization of relations, which would resolve and prevent such crises situations -- as the root causes go way beyond license plates."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he spoke with Borrell about the situation and that his Kosovo peacekeeping mission remains vigilant.
"We are disappointed that it was not possible to solve the license plate dispute. Now is the time for responsibility & pragmatic solutions," he tweeted. "Escalation must be avoided."