By Claire Rosemberg (AFP) – Mar 1, 2012
BRUSSELS — Serbia took a "milestone" leap towards EU membership when Europe's leaders granted Belgrade candidate status Thursday, opening a new chapter in the troubled history of the Western Balkans.
"European Council grants Serbia EU candidate status," EU president Herman Van Rompuy said on microblogging site Twitter as the bloc's 27 leaders ushered in Belgrade in recognition of its efforts to defuse tension with breakaway Kosovo.
The decision to grant Belgrade official EU candidate status, a first but crucial step in an often long and rocky road to full membership, marks a historic leap for a country only 13 years ago the target of a NATO bombing campaign.
Serbia's 2009 application, launched in the throes of the financial crisis and amid worries that the EU had expanded too far and too fast in its 2004 "big bang" enlargement, has been fraught with problems.
Seen as a shoo-in for membership after last year's arrest of Balkans war criminals Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic after almost two decades on the run, Belgrade had been suddenly held back and told to do more for regional peace by easing ties with Kosovo.
While staunchly refusing to recognise Kosovo's 2008 independence, Serbia joined an EU-sponsored dialogue with its former province a year ago, aimed at smoothing tension and overcoming daily headaches caused by the border row -- problems such as disrupted roads, railways and telecommunications.
But Belgrade's hopes of a subsequent EU pat on the back at a December summit were dashed notably by Britain and Germany, among 22 EU nations to have recognised Kosovo. More was demanded from the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue.
Other EU nations fretted over the friendship with Russia enjoyed by one of the last ex-communist states of eastern Europe still outside the bloc.
But last week, Serbia and Kosovo, both keen to inch closer to the bloc, staged a key breakthrough.
In an 11th-hour deal days before the EU summit deadline, Belgrade agreed to allow Kosovo to speak under its flag in regional meetings and to sign international agreements like any other fully recognised nation.
The two sides also agreed to jointly manage their flashpoint border, scene of recurrent clashes in past months between NATO peacekeepers and Serbs who make up the majority in northern Kosovo but refuse to recognise Pristina' independence.
"Serbia deserves candidate status," said European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.
A summit statement also said the EU would study the feasibility of a trade and political accord with Kosovo, known as a Stabilisation and Association agreement.
"We have reached an important milestone," Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said Thursday.
A decision on Serbia's bid had been expected earlier this week at EU ministerial talks but was blocked when Romania wielded its veto against opening the EU door to Belgrade -- a decision requiring a unanimous vote.
Removing a last potential hitch, Serbia did a deal with Romania ahead of Thursday's summit to mutually respect the rights of each other's minority groups.
"The status of candidate will not bring us much in direct and fast benefits," said former premier Zoran Zivkovic this week. But "it is a historic event, strategically linking the future of small and poor Serbia with the huge European family".
For pro-European Serbian President Boris Tadic, largely credited with bringing the country closer to entry, Thursday's decision is a key to stopping nationalist victories in May elections in case of a new EU rebuff.
Of the six nations once part of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia joined the EU in 2004 while Croatia is to be anointed the 28th member next year.
Macedonia and Montenegro are both official candidate countries but have yet to be approved for opening formal adhesion negotiations, a process that can take years. Politically divided Bosnia has made no move towards the EU.
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