Serbia wins support for joining EU

European foreign ministers back Balkan nation's candidacy despite resistance from neighbour Romania

Serbia took a large step towards integrating with mainstream Europe on Tuesday when European Union foreign ministers called for the country to be made a candidate for union membership.

The breakthrough came despite surprising resistance from neighbouring Romania, and followed a deal last week when Belgrade abandoned boycotting the attendance of Kosovo at regional and international meetings because it views Kosovo as part of Serbia and refuses to recognise its independence.

The decision by the foreign ministers, which needs to be endorsed by EU government heads at a Brussels summit on Thursday, puts Serbia on the path to EU membership, leaving behind the legacy of the 1990s when Balkan wars and ethnic pogroms earned it the status of an international pariah.

But while Belgrade now faces long years of arduous negotiations before it can become a member, Brussels has not yet named a date for opening the negotiations. EU governments will push for greater rapprochement between Serbia and Kosovo before agreeing to start talks.

The tensions with Kosovo, the Albanian-majority former southern province of Serbia which declared independence four years ago, scuppered Belgrade's chances of getting an EU green light in December amid clashes on the Serbia-Kosovo border. But last week, under EU mediation, Serbia yielded – under a complicated formula – to Kosovo attendance and representation at international meetings. Previously Belgrade had boycotted any such meetings on the grounds that it does not view Kosovo as a country.

Tuesday's breakthrough was held up for several hours by Romania, which insisted on greater protections and rights for the Romanian ethnic minority in Serbia, an issue that had not previously been a problem.

While it will be many years before Serbia joins the EU, the Brussels green light represents a boost for the president, Boris Tadic, before elections later this year. He will base his campaign on a policy that claims Serbia can join the EU without giving up Kosovo.

Under last week's deal, Kosovo is to be labelled with an asterisk and without the word republic when its officials take part in international and regional meetings. The asterisk refers to a footnote on the United Nations security council resolution on Kosovo's breakaway status and to an international court of justice ruling that the secession was not a breach of international law.

The granting of candidate status to Serbia is to be balanced by giving Kosovo an association agreement with the EU, the preliminary stage to talks about membership. But this is complicated by the fact that five EU countries do not recognise Kosovo's independence.


Ian Traynor in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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