The EU summit conclusions said the first intergovernmental conference on Serbia's accession would be held “in January 2014 at the very latest”.
A previous version of the summit conclusions specified that the 19-20 December EU summit would need to confirm Serbia’s negotiating framework, but this was withdrawn from the final text.
In the talks EU representatives will continue to scrutinise Serbian progress in normalising relations with its former province Kosovo (see background).
The EU summit also authorised the opening of negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo. Five EU countries do not recognise the Southeastern European republic - Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia. Consequently, the EU rapprochement process with the Union doesn't match the the same formats as for the other accession hopefuls.
Diplomatic sources told EurActiv that Serbia's accession talks were likely to start in January, following pressure from Germany despite most EU European affairs ministers expressing openness to launch the negotiations earlier.
Moreover, Europe ministers could have made the decision during a 25 June council in Luxembourg but Germany caused a second delay by preventing ministers from approving the beginning of negotiations until after the Bundestag had held a vote on Serbia’s EU future on 27 June, the first day of the EU summit.
The text adopted by the Bundestag mentioned the normalisation of Serbia's relations with Kosovo by the year’s end as the key issue.
By contrast, the EU summit conclusions contain no conditions.
A diplomatic source told EurActiv that Germany was “obsessed” with keeping enlargement-related issues as low on the EU agenda as possible, with one obvious reason being the German elections on 22 September.
But the source said Germany wanted to ensure that some EU countries, especially from the EU’s East and North, would not make enlargement promises they could not keep.
Both sides of the political spectrum in Germany appear to have similar views regarding EU enlargement. In a recent interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, European Parliament President Martin Schulz, a Social Democrat, warned against unrealistic expectations with regard to enlargement.
Schulz said that he did not expect to see "in the foreseeable future" any new accessions beyond Croatia, pointing to "enlargement fatigue" and institutional weaknesses.
The EU budget for 2014-2020 does not provide for any new member state other than Croatia. Heads of state and government approved the budget on the first day of the EU summit, with a vote expected in the European Parliament next week.
‘Serbia and Kosovo made progress’
But speaking after the summit, Merkel said that leaders had spoken about progress made between Serbia and Kosovo over the past few months in normalising their relations.
“Many of the problems that existed over the past few years have been overcome,” Merkel said. “Progress has indeed been made. This is why we said today that we want to use this opportunity to congratulate the countries on their progress. The conference on accession can go ahead on the condition that implementation goes according to plan.”
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso called the decision to launch talks with Serbia "indeed historic", omitting to specify conditions.
"We very often use the word 'historic' in an abusive manner, but this is historic. Let's not forget what happened not so long ago in that part of Europe, with one of the most violent wars we saw - and now we will start negotiations with Serbia," Barroso told reporters in Brussels.
Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council who chaired today's summit talks, said EU officials would visit both Serbia and Kosovo on Monday, in a sign of the EU's commitment to their integration with the bloc.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, whose country supports the opening of Serbia’s accession talks, told reporters that during the discussion at the summit table leaders had praised the Serbian and Kosovo authorities for having made remarkable progress by removing blockades at border crossings.
Oresharski added that Bulgaria would “insist for good-neighbourly relations with Serbia” during the accession talks, also making reference to Bulgaria’s sizeable Serbian minority.
Asked by EurActiv whether leaders had discussed other enlargement hopefuls, such as Macedonia or Turkey, he said that the name of Macedonia had not been mentioned at all, and that the accession negotiations with Turkey had not been discussed.
In the 25 June meeting between European affairs ministers, the EU decided to open a new chapter on Turkey’s accession negotiations after the European Commission presents its annual progress report in October.