Guy Norton in Zagreb -
As was widely expected, Serbia on October 12 was finally awarded the status of being an official candidate country for membership of the EU. But given the tetchy relations between Serbia and its erstwhile province Kosovo, the EU offer came with strings attached - namely that accession negotiations would only begin when Serbia achieves "additional significant progress in further normalisation of relations with Kosovo."
The typical Brussels-style fudge will no doubt delight the pro-EU lobby in Belgrade, but it holds out the possibility that the nationalist wing of public opinion in Serbia could still derail the EU accession process in the Balkan state. Although 22 members of the EU have recognised Kosovo's independence, five members - Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Slovakia and Romania - have refused to do so and consequently the EU didn't stipulate recognition of Kosovo as a formal requirement for Serbia's EU candidacy.
Ever since the arrest of war crimes suspects Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic in May and July respectively, it was commonly expected that the European Commission would endorse Serbia as a potential candidate for EU membership. But the outbreak of inter-communal violence in Kosovo in recent months undoubtedly complicated the proceedings.
In particular Germany, the key economic and political force in the EU, has ostensibly tied recognition of Kosovo's independence to Serbia's future EU membership. In June, a German parliamentary delegation on a visit to Belgrade told local media that Serbia would have to recognise Kosovo's independence otherwise German MPs in the Bundestag would not approve its accession to the bloc. Although they said that EU membership negotiations could start and end without a de jure recognition of Kosovo by Serbia, they said a de facto recognition must be accepted, including accepting Kosovo's membership in the UN and international organisations.
Commenting on the European Commission's decision, which still has to be ratified by the European Council of Ministers in December, Serbian President Boris Tadic told Serbian news agency Tanjug: "The EC recommendation is an important economic signal to investors because it says Serbia is on a steady course towards EU integration."
He added that the recommendation signalled the success of recent reform efforts such as the fight against organised crime, corruption and judicial changes. "I take pride in the fact that the EC has qualified as very successful the reforms Serbia has carried out... The people in Serbia should also be proud."
With regard to the stipulation that Serbia improve relations with Kosovo, Tadic said that the authorities in Belgrade were committed to mending ties with Pristina, but added: "However, Serbia has certain principles regarding territorial integrity it is not going to give up on, but that does not mean it is impossible to find a political solution to the crisis, as long as the other side has the will to do so."
Mixed news elsewhere
Meanwhile, the Commission recommended the opening of EU accession talks with Montenegro, which received candidate status last year, but which has had to strengthen anti-corruption and judicial reforms in the last 12 months. And Croatia, which completed EU membership talks in June after six years, is to set to join the EU on July 1, 2013, pending a local referendum on EU membership provisionally scheduled for January 2012, following parliamentary election on December 4. Based on Croatia's experience, Serbia would join the EU in 2020 or 2021.
There was bad news, however, for Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, all of whom failed to progress on their journey towards EU membership. The EU said that Bosnia's progress towards membership had been "very limited," no doubt complicated by the fact that the ethnically divided nation has been without a government since elections last year. Similarly, political tensions in Albania were cited as the basis for the Commission's statement that, "conditions for the opening of accession talks have not yet been met." Meanwhile, Macedonia - which became a EU candidate nearly six years ago - still sees its progress towards the EU stymied by Greece's objections over its name.
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