BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia rejected on Monday a European Union-brokered deal for reconciliation with its former province of Kosovo — a defiant move that could jeopardize the Balkan country's EU membership aspirations and fuel tensions in the region.
The EU had given Serbia until Tuesday to say whether it would relinquish its effective control over northern Kosovo in exchange for the start of membership negotiations.
Even before the rejection, a top leader had said the plan is unacceptable because it does not give more autonomy to minority ethnic Serbs in Kosovo who together with Serbia reject Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence.
"The Serbian government cannot accept the proposed principles ... because they do not guarantee full security, survival and protection of human rights for the Serbs in Kosovo," Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said. "Such an agreement could not be implemented and would not lead to a lasting and sustainable solution."
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, said after the eighth round of talks between Serbian and Kosovo officials last week in Brussels that she wanted a response from both sides and that the bloc's mediation was over.
Despite warnings that there will be no more EU-sponsored mediation, Vucic and the government called for more talks with the rival ethnic Albanians leaders of Kosovo.
"If there is a negative answer from (the EU), that would be bad news for Serbia, Kosovo and the EU," Vucic said. "If that happens, we would have to start thinking of what to do next.
"We don't want Serbia isolated from the world, but we have to protect our interests. It is highly important that we reach an agreement."
In a statement issued after Serbia's rejection, Ashton called on Belgrade "to make a last effort to reach an agreement, for the benefit of their people." But while she made no mention of formally extending the negotiation process, she said she hoped to lead "the discussion in the EU over the next few days in support of a real step forward by both Serbia and Kosovo towards their European future."
The rejection of the proposal could severely hamper Serbia's EU membership aspirations — which would include millions of dollars of promised accession funds. The rejection also could lead to more tensions in the Balkans, which are still reeling from the bloody wars of the 1990s when Serbia tried to prevent the breakup of the former Yugoslav federation by force.