EU set to agree accession talks date with Serbia

By bne IntelliNews December 5, 2013

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Serbia's path towards the EU is set to be firmly anchored on December 5 as the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee votes on a draft resolution on the Balkan state's progress during 2013 towards accession. That should lead a European Council meeting on December 19 to offer a date for membership talks to begin by early January.

European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule said on December 3 that Brussels is already prepared for accession talks to begin with Serbia, and that they will start by January at the latest.

Regardless of whether the first EU-Serbia intergovernmental conference will be held in late December or early January, Otilia Dhand, vice president of Teneo Intelligence, points out that, "the exact timing is somewhat irrelevant as the whole process of negotiations will take several years to conclude." Indeed, it took Croatia eight years from the start of accession talks in 2005 to membership in July this year. And Serbia has a whole host of obstacles that Croatia didn't face.

Principal among those is Kosovo, Serbia's erstwhile province that is now an ethnic-Albanian independent state. On the same day the Foreign Affairs Committee meets, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will be meeting with Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and his Serbian counterpart Ivica Dacic in Brussels for another round of dialogue to discuss how to move forward on the unresolved issues pertaining to implementation of an agreement signed in April. That EU-brokered "Brussels deal" was the catalyst for the succession of steps that has enabled Serbia to stand at the start line for membership talks.

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008, after Nato helped stop 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. The deal allowed for elections to be held right across Kosovo in November, for the first time since independence. Previous votes were boycotted by much of Kosovo's minority-Serb population at the bequest of Belgrade, which organised rival elections of local representatives in separate polls.

While parts of the November election had to be re-held in Serb-dominated North Mitrovica due to violence and intimidation at some polling stations, the elections were deemed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission chief, Claude Schlumberger, as a "success." That was enough to open the way for Serbia to progress on the EU path.

A draft framework for the country's EU negotiations, which forms the basis for the start of talks, has already been prepared but is yet to be published. Analysts say all eyes will focus on chapter 35 of the talks, which deals with relations with Kosovo. "Some EU representatives suggested that this chapter should be the first to be opened in the forthcoming talks, along with chapters 23 (Judiciary, Fundamental Freedoms and Justice) and 24 (Freedom and Security)," says Dhand.

While the negotiations will be long and hard, not least because of "enlargement fatigue" across the EU, there are some positive signs for Serbia. One referred to by Serbia's chief representative in Brussels, Tanja Miscevic, on December 3 is that Serbia is not starting from scratch. Belgrade began harmonizing legislation with EU standards a decade ago, long before even a Stabilization and Association Agreement - regarded as the first official step in the accession process - was signed in 2008.

Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak - who has held several senior EU posts in the former Yugoslavia in the past - offered Belgrade support. He says he agrees with Miscevic that it is obvious some countries are in the fast lane on the road to the EU, mentioning Serbia, as well as Montenegro and Albania.

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