SERBIA yesterday was given the go-ahead to start negotiations on joining the European Union, capping a remarkable transformation in the prospects of the biggest former Yugoslav republic since the 1990s wars.
The decision rewards Belgrade for a deal to improve relations with its former province of Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia in a 1998-99.
EU leaders also agreed that Brussels should launch negotiations with Kosovo on a so-called association agreement, which covers trade, economic and political relations and is a step on the path to eventual membership.
The leaders agreed that talks with Serbia would start in January 2014 “at the very latest”. “We are at a historic moment for the Balkans and for Europe as a whole,” European Council president Herman Van Rompuy told a news conference, noting that the decisions on Serbia and Kosovo came as Croatia prepares to join the European Union on Monday.
“These … decisions are an immediate result of the courageous agreement Belgrade and Pristina reached last April,” said Mr Van Rompuy, who will travel to both capitals on Monday.
Serbia and Kosovo have been at odds since Kosovo seceded in 2008 with western backing. After months of EU-brokered talks, the two sides reached an agreement in April aimed at ending the virtual ethnic partition of Kosovo between its ethnic Albanian majority and a pocket of 50,000 Serbs in the north.
The agreement still has to be fully implemented, and EU governments will assess progress before giving a final, formal go-ahead to talks later this year.
The EU negotiation process should help drive reforms in Serbia, the largest country to emerge from the former Yugoslavia, luring investors to its ailing economy.
Prime minister Ivica Dacic, leader of the co-ruling Socialists and a former spokesman for the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, said his government had worked hard for the EU bid. “The date for accession talks is the first step of this great journey we are about to undertake,” Mr Dacic said.
Defence minister Aleksandar Vucic, head of the conservative Serbian Progressive Party, said the Balkan state must do more to consummate reforms. “This is the turning point in our modern history. Serbia has demonstrated that no one can stop its way forward,” Vucic told ministers.
Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the EU’s decision and said KFOR, the Nato-led Kosovo peacekeeping force, would “continue to play its role by ensuring a safe and secure environment for all people in Kosovo”. KFOR, in Kosovo since June 1999, comprises 5,000 troops from 31 countries.
Mr Dacic said this week he hoped Serbia could wrap up membership talks in four to five years, although the widely held view in Brussels is that it is unlikely to be admitted before 2020.
In recent years, Serbia has made notable strides towards the EU thanks to progress on democratic reforms and the capture of fugitives wanted for crimes during the Yugoslav wars.
Of Serbia’s fellow ex-Yugoslav republics, Slovenia joined the EU in 2004, Croatia follows on Monday and tiny Montenegro began membership talks last year. Macedonia is a candidate, while Bosnia has yet to apply.