Green light for Serbia

By bne IntelliNews June 26, 2013

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Serbia's efforts to normalise relations with its erstwhile province but now independent Kosovo look to have paid dividends, as EU ministers on June 25 recommended giving the Balkan country a start date for accession talks.

The decision - which must still be formally ratified by EU leaders at their summit meeting on Friday, June 28 - will mean talks with Serbia would begin in January at the very latest, but perhaps "as early as October," according to EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule.

Defying the cynics, Kosovan and Serbian leaders managed to stitch together an 11th hour EU-brokered deal on April 19 over normalizing relations. There had been worries that a deal was beyond the two foes. The province of Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 after Nato helped stopped a civil war several years before between the ethnic Albanian and Serbian populations. And while many countries recognise Kosovo as an independent country, Serbia still does not and has been holding on through various means to the Serb-dominated north of the country. About 140,000 ethnic Serbs live in Kosovo out of a total population of 1.7m; about a third of them live in the north. And it was the fate of those Serbs in the north that was the main sticking point in the talks.

Unsurprisingly given the region's history, the deal is complicated, but basically says that while Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as a state, it accepts its legal authority over the whole territory. In exchange, the Kosovo authorities have conceded a level of autonomy to four Serb-controlled areas of northern Kosovo, which will form one large community. This region will then receive broad rights and authority in issues pertaining to police, justice, education, health care and culture.

Kosovo too has gained from deal hashed out with Serbia; European heads of state recommended starting talks with Kosovo on an accord that would bring closer ties and could eventually lead to EU membership talks starting. "This is a good day for both countries," Fule said. "They have exceeded our expectations in putting their relations on a new footing. And I see this decision today by the member states as another proof of the credibility of the enlargement process."

However, no one is under any illusions that the process will be quick. Croatia is due to become the 28th member of the EU on July 1, but to get there it has taken the ex-Yugoslavian state almost eight years since it started the accession talks.

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