The EU moved closer to starting accession talks with Serbia yesterday (25 October) after overcoming long-standing opposition from the Dutch government. Belgrade said a "new era" in its history had begun. BETA, EURACTIV's partner in Serbia, contributed to this article.
Meeting in Luxembourg, EU foreign ministers found a formula to unblock the launch of accession talks with Serbia. The diplomatic jargon adopted accommodates the Netherlands' demand that any further step in Serbia's EU accession must be conditional on Belgrade's cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
The move became possible after Belgrade agreed to engage in talks with Kosovo, its former province, whose declaration of independence in 2008 Serbia does not recognise.
Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said he was satisfied that the compromise text had put "pressure" on Serbia to fully cooperate with the ICTY.
Steven Vanackere, Belgium's foreign minister, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, praised the "good balance" of the text.
In fact, Belgium made a huge contribution to successfully reaching the compromise. It had to step aside from its own national position as its duty at the EU’s helm is to seek a common position. Jean de Ruyt, Belgium's EU ambassador, told EURACTIV that his country's stance on the need for full cooperation with ICTY mirrored the Dutch view.
In Belgrade, the head of the EU delegation to Serbia, Vincent Degert, said it would be "realistic" for the country to start accession talks in a year's time.
Apparently Serbia, the 'core country' of the former Yugoslavia, is in a race to secure speedy accession talks for various reasons. One of them, according diplomatic sources, is that Belgrade wants to wrap up its membership talks before Croatia's EU accession, which could realistically happen in 2013.
Another reason is that Serbia would not like to be overtaken by Montenegro, a small Adriatic country which seceded from Serbia and Montenegro in 2006. Montenegro expects to gain candidate status in November and to launch accession talks in 2011.
Although Montenegro may appear to be a candidate less burdened by issues related to the region's violent recent past, Serbia's administrative capacity is acknowledged as significant in comparison with its small neighbour.
"Peer pressure" and internal competition among candidates are factors seen positively by Brussels. Another factor which could help countries from the former Yugoslavia advance faster toward EU accession is their common lingua franca, called 'Serbo-Croat' in the recent past. Croatia has already translated most of the EU acquis and it has made the texts available to other EU hopefuls.
However, setbacks remain possible. Recently, officials in EU countries have considered removing visa-free travel for Serbia and Macedonia as growing numbers of asylum seekers from those countries hit the borders of Sweden, Belgium and Germany.