By Gordana Andric
After several hours of debate, EU foreign ministers at the General Affairs Council in Brussels recommended that Serbia should be awarded EU candidate status.
Serbia’s centrist government received a welcome shot in the arm ahead of local elections when European Union ministers agreed to recommend awarding Serbia EU candidate status.
“Today we have examined and confirmed that Serbia has lived up to the criteria set up in the European Council conclusions in December, therefore we decided to recommend to grant Serbia candidate status,” said Nicolai Halby Wammen, Danish Minister for European Affairs.
He said that over the past years Serbia has delivered numerous reforms and showed willingness to achieve good results in the talks between Belgrade and Pristina.
“These efforts are now being rewarded and this is well deserved,” said Wammen adding that there is still plenty of hard work ahead for Serbia.
EU foreign ministers recommendation must be confirmed at the EU summit on March 1 and 2.
EU’s enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, said that he is “confident that the decision will be confirmed by the heads of states and governments at the European Council.”
“I expect that Serbia as a candidate country will be able to further progress on its reform agenda so as to prepare for the future opening of accession negotiations,” said Fule.
Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, was among the first to congratulate Serbia for obtaining an EU candidacy recommendation on his Twitter account.
“Green light for Serbia candidacy status today to be confirmed by European Council on Thursday. Congratulations!” Bildt said, referring to the fact that the deal will not be sealed until the European Council endorses Tuesday’s deliberations later this week.
Ahead of the debate, Serbian President Boris Tadic said Serbia had met all the requirements for obtaining candidacy.
Tadic said that Serbia had also met all the conditions necessary to get a start date for opening accession talks, but that the “Kosovo issue” remained an obstacle here. Serbia does not recognise its southern neighbour, maintinaing that it is a province of Serbia.
According to Serbia’s public broadcaster RTS, one of the main reasons why the Council debate on Serbian candidacy lasted several hours was because Romania held it up with objections to Serbia’s treatment of the Romanian, or Vlach, minority.
Serbia’s Tadic said the remarks that Romania made during the debate were “unjustified”. According to Tanjug, other countries, including Germany, were critical of Romania’s standpoint.
Before the debate German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had made it clear that Berlin would support Serbia’s candidacy.
“I’m working on it that Serbia gets candidacy today… We think that Serbia has fulfilled what was required, and now it’s up to the EU to do [its part],” Westerwelle said.
Austria agreed. Its Foreign Minister, Michael Spindelegger, said that granting the candidacy to Serbia was a question of credibility of the EU and that no “new, artificial barriers” should be set at this point.
Serbia started negotiations with the EU in 2005 but they 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 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 and Brussels said it wanted to see tangible progress in talks with Kosovo before it made a decision.
One of the requirements then set was that Belgrade and Pristina should reach an agreement that would enable Kosovo to participate in regional forums without prompting Serbia to walk out. The deal was reached on February 24.
Ironically, the good news for Belgrade as regards its EU prospects comes as Serb support for joining the bloc declines to an all-time low.
Only 51 per cent of people in Serbia now support membership of the European club, according to a recent poll conducted by the government’s European Integration Office, EIO, in December.