Serbia officially started its accession talks with the EU yesterday (21 January), but the path to membership is lined with obstacles as the country faces new procedural rules and its relations with Kosovo remain an outstanding issue.

“Serbia will be the next member state of the European Union,” Ivica Dačić, the prime minister of Serbia, confidently concluded his address to the press, after having officially launched accession negotiations for his country with the EU.

Seen as the “most important event since World War II” in Serbia, the negotiations are not expected to be an easy ride. 

The screening process starts today (22 January).

Kosovo - towards recognition?

The chapter 35, dedicated to the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, will be among the first ones to be opened.

Usually reserved for “other issues” and dealt with at the very end of the negotiating process, this time chapter 35 will be central to Serbia’s progress towards EU membership as it tackles Serbia's most serious political issue, its relations with Kosovo.

Kosovo, a former Serbian province, declared its independence from the largest Western Balkans state. It is recognised by a large part of the international community, but not by Belgrade.

Chapter 35 relies on a landmark deal reached by Pristina and Belgrade on 19 April but is unclear what it will look like exactly, as it is a precedent in the EU accession negotiations framework.

As the Serbian chief negotiator, Tanja Miščević conceded, “chapter 35 will be a challenge to both Serbia and the EU Commission because it is a novelty” in the negotiating process.

Last December, EU heads of states and governments concluded, after verifying the EU negotiations framework, that both sides must reach a “legally binding agreement on the comprehensive normalisation of relations before Serbia becomes a member of the EU.”

Asked to comment about that particular wording and to say whether that would mean recognising Kosovo’s statehood in the course of the process, Dačić said he could not speak on behalf of the EU, but admitted that confusion reigned on the matter.

“Nobody knows exactly what that means. Given that there are different approaches on Kosovo’s status in the EU, at this moment there is no intention to include a change of our position on the status of Kosovo,” he said.

EU sources explain that even though the recognition of Kosovo is not, and probably never will be, a formal condition of the negotiations, it is "clear that what is expected is that the normalisation process will eventually lead to a recognition by Serbia of Kosovo's statehood. Member states hope that it will done without them having to ask". 

The issue could nonetheless be raised at the very end of the accession talks in a more outspoken way, sources say. "In any case, it is up to the political elite to prepare the public opinion." 

'Lessons learned'

Although the chapter 35 is a novelty for Serbia only, the country has to abide by other new rules in the enlargement process too.

As the EU is drawing lessons from past enlargement mistakes, new candidates must now start the process by opening the most difficult chapters first – judiciary and fundamental rights (chapter 23) and justice, freedom and security (chapter 24).

“This is not just to make the accession negotiations more difficult or changing the rules of the game, it’s just focusing more on the track record, [to] have as soon as possible positive effects on the ground,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle explained, adding that Serbia would have to face a “demanding” but “fair” process.

While all eyes are on the screening process right now, Füle does not exclude the opening of chapters in the first half of this year, under the Greek presidency.

“The main focus in 2014 will be on the preparations for opening of chapters 23 and 24, we could build on the screening of those two chapters and in a matter of weeks we’ll be able to share the report with the authorities … hopefully before the end of this year. The sooner those two chapters are opened, the sooner many other chapters will be opened too,” Füle underlined.

The Greek foreign minister, Evangelos Venizelos said that the Greek presidency, a strong supporter of Serbia, would do everything necessary to “accelerate” the process, adding that the last word in enlargement decisions was always in the hands of member states, not the Commission.

The Serbian prime minister and his deputy, Aleksandar Vučić, claim that Serbia can conclude the accession negotiations in six years and are confident that the country will join in 2020 “with the start of the new European financial period”.

Record-low support for EU accession

Whatever the timeframe, Serbia’s accession to the EU will first have to be approved by the citizens in a referendum.

With 36% of the people in Serbia thinking that joining the EU would be a good thing, the support for EU integration in Serbia is the lowest recorded in a candidate country so far, a Eurobarometer poll carried out in November 2013 showed.

The only country with lower support was Iceland, which is no longer a candidate country since it walked out on EU talks last summer.

In the Serbian parliament, only one party is labeled Eurosceptic, the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia, led by the former prime minister Vojislav Koštunica. Once a friend of the West, Koštunica now advocates political neutrality for his country and is opposed to membership in both the EU and NATO. He is also opposed to the 19 April agreement and calls for a referendum in 2015 on joining the EU.

"Our country is deteriorating further every day because of European integration and one can no longer watch this passively,” Koštunica was quoted saying.