Serbia starts progress towards joining EU

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European Union leaders formally made Serbia a candidate for membership in the bloc, in a remarkable turnaround for a country considered a pariah just over a decade ago.

Serbia had been widely expected to get EU candidacy in December after it captured two top war crimes suspects, but was disappointed when Germany delayed the move, saying it wanted to see more progress in talks with Kosovo.

“We agreed to grant Serbia the status of candidate country,” EU president Herman Van Rompuy said after a meeting of the bloc’s heads of state and government on Thursday. “This is a remarkable result. I hope Belgrade will continue to encourage good neighbourly relations in the Western Balkans.”

Serbia spent much of the 1990s ostracised and isolated from the EU after its then strongman Slobodan Milosevic started the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. In 1999, Nato bombed Serbia to prevent a crackdown on ethnic Albanians.

Candidate status is an initial step on the road to EU membership. Belgrade will still probably have to wait for about a year to open actual accession negotiations, which can then drag on for several years.

Still, the EU move is politically important for Serbia’s pro-EU president Boris Tadic, whose party faces elections soon. The European Parliament urged the bloc’s executive body yesterday to open accession negotiations with Serbia as soon as possible.

Kosovo, which many Serbs consider the cradle of their statehood and religion, came under international control after the 1999 war.