The Serbian public has received mostly approvingly, but without much euphoria, the long-anticipated news of the country achieving EU candidate status. Beta, EURACTIV's partner agency in Serbia, reports.
The dispassionate tone was also given by Serbian President Boris Tadi? – usually prone to optimistic statements – who pointed out that while this is a great achievement, it is not "epochal".
"It will be epochal once Serbia crosses the enchanted border and joins the EU with the possibility of using all potentials and funds," Tadi? told a news conference on 2 March, the day EU leaders meeting in Brussels approved candidate status.
The explanation for the somewhat tempered reaction of the Serbian public may also be because the decision on candidacy was delayed in September. Serbians had expected their country to be quickly rewarded after the extradition to The Hague of accused war criminals, particularly former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladi?.
Officials had announced the certainty of candidate status and also hinted that the decision on starting accession talks was probable. However, last summer's tensions in Kosovo (see background) tempered those hopes.
Brussels to make more demands
Another reason for the somewhat tepid reaction is awareness of the fact that Serbia, as it progresses towards the EU, will be given increasingly difficult tasks by Brussels. The European Commission, in its October opinion on Serbia, set defined objectives regarding the improvement of relations with Kosovo.
The priorities are the solving of problems in the telecommunication and energy sectors, as well as the implementation of agreements concerning regional cooperation and everyday life.
Serbia now faces a long road to membership, and must meet conditions for negotiations, harmonise regulations and consistently implement reforms during the talks, which will take years. As the condition for setting a date for the beginning of the talks depends on relations with Kosovo, ups and downs are anticipated.
Romania's short-lived, last-minute opposition to Serbia's candidacy, which it used to push for guarantees for the ethnic Romanian minority in Serbia, also made a portion of the Serbian wonder what other unexpected obstacles might spring up.
EU's role in Serb elections
This year, presidential, general and local elections will be held in Serbia. The European Union, as Serbia's most important official strategic goal, is playing a major role in the campaigns, although at this time of crisis its significance has diminished to an extent.
Political analysts do not believe the decision to grant candidacy will significantly boost the ruling Democratic Party's popularity. However, had the status not been granted, it would likely have had a negative impact.
Government authorities had mostly been pro-European since 2000, while the main opposition party was the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, led by Hague tribunal indictee Vojislav Seselj.
Since the previous election in 2008, the pro-European mood has grown among the political class. A portion of the Serbian Radical Party, including leaders Tomislav Nikoli? and Aleksandar Vu?i?, founded a new Serbian Progressive Party, which is officially pro-European. According to polls, it enjoys greater support than the ruling Democratic Party.
The decision on Serbia's candidacy was predictably received negatively by nationalist parties. The Radical Party in particular regretted the fact that if Serbia were to join the EU, it would have to abandon its free trade agreement with Russia.
Recently, Ivica Da?i?, interior minister and leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia, a coalition partner in the government, said that if the EU turns down Serbia's bid, the country should turn to Russia as a strategic partner.
The European Commission recommended that Serbia receive EU candidate status in October 2011. It also proposed beginning negotiations when relations between Belgrade and Pristina, capital of the breakaway state of Kosovo, improve.
Kosovo, which is predominantly populated by ethnic Albanians, declared independence in 2008. Its independence is not recognised by Serbia and several EU states, including Spain and Romania.
Some EU countries are demanding the abolition of Serb institutions in northern Kosovo, which is inhabited by an ethnic Serb majority. This is a highly delicate political issue in Serbia.
Kosovo entered the spotlight as a condition for EU accession last summer, when a conflict broke out between Belgrade and Pristina over trade. There have been violent clashes between Serbian and Kosovar forces, with injuries on both sides and among NATO peacekeepers.
Of the former Yugoslav countries, Slovenia is an EU member and Croatia will join the Union mid-2013. Montenegro and Macedonia are official candidates but the latter has been unable to begin negotiations due to a name dispute with Greece. Bosnia and Herzegovina will reportedly officially apply for EU membership in June.