Serbia opens first EU negotiation chapters

Serbia opens first EU negotiation chapters
By Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade December 15, 2015

Serbia opened its first two accession negotiation chapters on December 14, a significant milestone on the country's path to EU entry.

Serbia’s main foreign policy goal is to join the EU, which is expected to give a strong boost to an economy that has persistently struggled. The opening of the first two chapters, which was already expected on December 14, is seen as a great chance for a better future by the Serbian public.

Brussels decided to to open negotiations on Chapter 32 on financial control and Chapter 35 on the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, the European Council said in a statement.

Chapter 35 makes Serbia’s EU accession process unique as it is the first country whose EU path is conditioned by a non-EU member.

Kosovo was a Serbian province until it unilaterally declared its independence in 2008. Relations between Belgrade and Pristina are tense but the two sides managed to sign the Brussels Agreement in April 2013, and to follow it up with four additional agreements signed in August this year under EU mediation.

The European Council said that Serbia should ensure that it completes its part of the work on implementation of the August agreements, in particular on the establishment of the community of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo.

“Serbia should engage in reaching further agreements, furthering the normalisation in good faith, with a view to gradually lead to the comprehensive normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, in line with the negotiating framework,” the EU said.

Pristina has struggled to keep to its side of the agreements signed in August, as the Kosovan opposition has launched a campaign against them including by organising mass protests and setting off tear gas in the parliament.

However, Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic has been determined to ensure the country remains on track towards EU accession.

At a joint press conference with Jean Asselborn, minister of foreign affairs of Luxembourg, which currently holds the EU presidency, and European commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy Johannes Hahn, Vucic said Serbs were “writing history”.

“Now we need to work hard so that Serbia can become a member of the European family. This is important for various reasons, but first of all because of the type of society Serbia wants to belong to,” Vucic said. He added that the opening of the first chapters was also important for Serbia’s economy. The prime minister reiterated that Serbia’s goal is to complete everything by 2019, after which it will be up to the EU to decide whether it wants Serbia as a member. Accession negotiations between Serbia and the EU started in January 2014.

Vucic had a special message of thanks for German chancellor Angela Merkel, who launched the Berlin process in 2014 aimed at supporting the Western Balkans countries on their path to EU integration. He referred to “one European leader” without whom Serbia would not have arrived at the opening of the chapters. “She has kept her word,” Vucic said.

Hahn underlined that Serbia is now a country with a clear European perspective, and that those who are now investing in Serbia will invest in Europe. The opening of the chapters will be a signal of a stable business environment for foreign investors, he added.

However, Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic warned against “euphoria” over the opening of the chapters.

"Serbia has long deserved it, has fulfilled many conditions that were very difficult to fulfill, without seeing the exit from the tunnel. The opening of chapters is symbolic ... means that we are still on that European path in the eyes of the EU," Nikolic told daily Kurir.

"I'm not euphoric, this should be accepted wisely and reasonably - the same as when we had the association agreement, or when we become a candidate for membership. It's another success and many more obligations. It's like when you read a big book, going through the first hundred pages, and then another hundred," Nikolic said.

While the government delegation was waiting to hear the EU’s decision, Nikolic was visiting Serbian Orthodox Church Saint Sava in Belgrade accompanied by Russia’s ambassador to Serbia, Aleksandar Cephurin.