The European Union made Serbia a candidate for membership Thursday, following years of political reform and a gradual improvement in relations with Kosovo. The move follows a lengthy process to bring the former Yugoslav republic into the bloc.
REUTERS - The European Union made Serbia a candidate for membership on Thursday in an attempt to promote better government in the western Balkans as the region struggles to emerge from the wars of the 1990s.
EU leaders took the decision at a summit in Brussels, launching a potentially lengthy process to bring the former Yugoslav republic into the bloc.
It marks a turnaround for Serbia, once seen as the pariah of Balkans for its central role in wars that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic.
“This is a remarkable achievement,” European Council President Herman Van Rompuy told a news conference after the meeting. “I hope it will encourage Serbia to make further efforts.”
Becoming an EU candidate rewards years of political reform and improvements in relations with Kosovo, a former Serbian province, as well as Belgrade’s efforts to come to terms with its past by catching war crimes suspects.
The EU wants to commit Belgrade to the bloc’s democratic values, and ensure ethnic tensions do not again spark violence in the region, scene of Europe’s most devastating fighting since World War Two in 1990s.
“The EU is gradually dismantling the Balkans-shaped bomb lying right next to it,” said Daniel Korski, senior analyst at the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations.
The Balkan wars marked a failure by the EU to stop violence in its backyard. During the Serb assault on Bosnia, tens of thousands of people died and a million lost their homes in four years before NATO troops swooped in to force the Serb army out.
More than a decade after the fighting subsided, the EU is accelerating its embrace of former Yugoslav states, which started when Slovenia joined the bloc in 2004.
Croatia last year earned the nod to become the EU’s 28th member in July 2013. Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move Belgrade still refuses to recognise, is also establishing closer political and trade links with the EU.
But much of the western Balkans suffers from political deadlock and ethnic rivalries, while corruption and organised crime are rife.
“Croatian membership and Serbian progress will concentrate minds across the region,” said Korski. “They will think: ‘If we take reform seriously, we will get invited. If we don’t, we get nothing’.”
Correcting the past, questioning the future
Serbia’s candidate status was nearly derailed earlier this week when Romania unexpectedly refused to sign a preliminary decision on the issue.
Bucharest argued it wanted more assurances over the protection of the rights of a Romanian minority in Serbia.
But Romanian President Traian Basescu agreed to Serbia’s candidacy before Thursday’s summit. Diplomats said he had used the minority rights issue to express his anger over a separate issue: The EU has been delaying permission for Romania and Bulgaria to join the passport-free Schengen zone.
In a last-minute solution, EU leaders said after the meeting a decision on Romania’s entry would be taken in September. This will give time for the Netherlands, the main opponent, to assess Bucharest’s efforts in fighting corruption, which Dutch politicians see a condition.
Candidate status will be just a first step in a long process leading towards membership for Serbia. In the coming months, the EU’s executive Commission will review improvements in relations with Kosovo and other reforms to decide, possibly in October, whether Serbia is ready to start official entry talks.
Even after that, years of often tortuous give-and-take might lie ahead for Serbia. Other candidates for EU entry are struggling to make quick progress.
Turkey became a candidate in 1999, but its bid is largely frozen due to opposition from Cyprus and France. Macedonia cannot even start talks because of opposition from Greece, which disputes the country’s right to the name.
Date created : 2012-03-02