Serbia finally granted EU candidate status

By bne IntelliNews March 2, 2012

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EU's leaders on March 1 unanimously agreed to offer Serbia its long-coveted status of being an EU candidate country, ending four months in which Serbia stood on the brink of candidacy. Given it took Croatia - the country poised to become the EU's 28th member in 2013 - seven years to get from candidate in June 2004 to signing the accession treaty in December, few in Serbia are cheering yet.

"European Council grants Serbia EU candidate status," tweeted EU President Herman Van Rompuy following frantic late-night negotiations.

Serbian President Boris Tadic was elated, no doubt hoping this will boost his party's electoral chances when is country goes to the polls sometime in May. "Serbian citizens bore the greatest burden of comprehensive reforms the country carried out so as to become a democratic society regulated by laws which respects human and minority rights and affirms European values," he said.

Candidate status is the first step towards EU membership. It could take a year before accession negotiations start and it's uncertain how long it might take after that. Many in Brussels are suffering from "enlargement fatigue" and worry about absorbing another big, relatively poor and unreconstructed country like Serbia.

Winding road

The European Commission actually recommended Serbia be granted candidate status in October, but hopes of it being bestowed in December were thwarted when German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Serbia must first dismantle "parallel structures" in Serb-dominated areas of north Kosovo - an erstwhile province of Serbia whose ethnic Albanian majority pushed it towards independence.

Germany's condition remained until the end of February when German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle made a surprise visit to Belgrade expressing unconditional support. Austria, France and Italy had threatened to highlight Germany's isolated position.

A day after Westerwelle's visit, Serbia and Kosovo agreed on how the latter would be called in regional meetings and on border patrols. Having handed over alleged war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, there seemed there was nothing more to do.

But there were still obstacles. Serbia only won the unanimous backing of EU foreign ministers on Tuesday, February 28 after six hours because Romania said it was unhappy at the status of Serbia's Vlach minority. A minority of Serb Vlachs identify with Romania. "From the German point of view, it would have been appropriate and right to take a final decision today," Westerwelle said on Tuesday. However, the foreign ministers could only issue a recommendation because of Romania's misgivings.

Some doubt the sincerity of Romania's concerns for Serbia's Vlachs, saying it was brinksmanship aimed at securing expansion of the Schengen passport-free area. The Dutch are opposed to allowing Romania and Bulgaria in until they improve on corruption and judiciary.

Whatever the reason for Vlach question arising, it was overcome. "Everything is settled," said Romanian President Traian Basescu shortly before meeting his counterparts. The agreement was signed by Serbian Ambassador to the EU Roksanda Nincic and Romanian counterpart Mihnea Motoc.

Now the hard work begins.

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