Serbia took a “milestone” leap toward EU membership when Europe’s leaders granted Belgrade candidate status on Thursday, opening a new chapter in the troubled history of the Western Balkans.
“European Council grants Serbia EU candidate status,” EU President Herman Van Rompuy said on Twitter as the bloc’s 27 leaders ushered in Belgrade in recognition of its efforts to defuse tension with breakaway Kosovo.
The decision to grant Belgrade official EU candidate status, a first but crucial step in an often long and rocky road to full membership, marks an historic leap for a country only 13 years ago the target of a NATO bombing campaign.
Serbian President Boris Tadic welcomed the EU’s decision, saying it paves the way for “economic advance and prosperity.”
However, he warned that a “lot of work is ahead of us in order to launch the negotiations on the EU membership, which is the next step after obtaining the status.”
Serbia’s 2009 application, launched in the throes of the financial crisis and amid worries that the EU had expanded too far and too fast in its 2004 “big bang” enlargement, has been fraught with problems.
Seen as a shoo-in for membership after last year’s arrest of Balkans war criminals Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic after almost two decades on the run, Belgrade had been suddenly held back and told to do more for regional peace by easing ties with Kosovo.
While staunchly refusing to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 independence, Serbia joined an EU-sponsored dialogue with its former province a year ago, aimed at smoothing tensions and overcoming daily headaches caused by the border row — problems such as disrupted roads, railways and telecommunications.
However, Belgrade’s hopes of a subsequent EU pat on the back at a summit in December last year were dashed, notably by Britain and Germany, among 22 EU nations to have recognized Kosovo. More was demanded from the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue.
Other EU nations fretted over the friendship with Russia enjoyed by one of the last ex-communist states of eastern Europe still outside the bloc.
However, last week, Serbia and Kosovo, both keen to inch closer to the bloc, staged a key breakthrough.
In an 11th-hour deal days before the EU summit deadline, Belgrade agreed to allow Kosovo to speak under its flag in regional meetings and to sign international agreements like any other fully recognized nation.
The two sides also agreed to jointly manage their flashpoint border, scene of recurrent clashes in recent months between NATO peacekeepers and Serbs who make up the majority in northern Kosovo, but refuse to recognize Pristina’s independence.
“Serbia deserves candidate status,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said.
A summit statement also said the EU would study the feasibility of a trade and political accord with Kosovo, known as a Stabilization and Association agreement.
“We have reached an important milestone,” Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said on Thursday.
A decision on Serbia’s bid had been expected earlier this week at EU ministerial talks, but was blocked when Romania wielded its veto against opening the EU door to Belgrade — a decision requiring a unanimous vote.
Removing a last potential hitch, Serbia struck a deal with -Romania ahead of Thursday’s summit to mutually respect the rights of each other’s minority groups.