By Bojana Barlovac
EU leaders and Serbian ministers hailed the decision to grant Serbia candidate status, though Serbia’s main opposition leader said the achievement would mean little if the country remained under the same government.
President Boris Tadic congratulated Serbia on obtaining EU candidate status late on Thursday night.
The award was recognition that Serbia had undertaken “comprehensive reforms… to become a democratic society regulated by laws which respect human and minority rights and affirm European values,” the President stated.
Candidate status should also open the door to economic progress and prosperity in future, he remarked.
The decision to give Serbia official candidate status was taken at the EU summit in Brussels late on Thursday evening and announced by Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council.
“This is a remarkable achievement, a result of efforts demonstrated by both sides in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina,” he said, referring to ongoing talks between Serbia and its former province.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Serbia’s candidacy “shows that the EU remains very attractive … [because it and other countries] want to join this project of freedom, responsibility and solidarity”.
In Belgrade, Serbian Defence Minister Dragan Sutanovac said that Serbia now had to maintain its pro-reform momentum.
“The same energy and enthusiasm is needed in Serbia for our further European integration… internal reforms [must] be successfully continued,” the minister said on Friday.
Nebojsa Ciric, Economy Minister, said the real effects of the decision to grant Serbia candidate status would materialize in future through increased access to European funds and new investment.
Sonja Liht, head of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, a local NGO, described the day as “historic”. She also expressed hopes that Serbia would continue to work on further reforms and on further progress on its EU path.
Opposition leaders were more guarded.
Tomislav Nikolic, leader of the biggest opposition party, the Serbian Progressive Party, SNS, welcomed the news while distancing the achievement from the ruling Democrat-led coalition.
“As a Serb I am happy about the status but… this status won’t mean anything unless Serbia is ready to move forward… or if it stays buried with the same government that has been running the country poorly and meaninglessly for the past 12 years,” he said.
Serbia started negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement – the first phase in the protracted membership process – back in 2005.
Talks have since have gone back and forth, largely depending on the country’s perceived level of cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, the ICTY.
In January 2011, Serbia filled out the EU questionnaire and four months later it cleared away one of the last remaining obstacles to candidacy when it arrested and handed over its most-wanted war crimes suspect, Ratko Mladic.
On December 9, the European Council postponed a decision on Serbia’s candidacy following an eruption of Serb nationalist violence in northern Kosovo.
Brussels said it wanted to see tangible progress in talks with Kosovo before making a final decision.
Both sides took notice, and Belgrade and Pristina worked out a compromise on the vexed question of Kosovo’s representation at regional meetings on February 24.