Eric Vidal/Reuters
Serbia's President Boris Tadic (l.) and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso hold a joint news conference after a meeting in Brussels Tuesday. Romania threatened on Tuesday to derail European Union plans to grant Serbia membership candidate status in a row over minority rights in the former Yugoslav state, EU diplomats said.

For Serbia, membership in troubled EU still a prize

The European Union will make Serbia an official candidate for EU membership this week. It's a positive development for a country that wants to show it's in line with democratic ideals. 

Serbia is set to become an official candidate for European Union membership by the end of the week, following tortuous diplomatic negotiations and delays over slow progress on justice issues and normalization with Kosovo.

In Serbia, the news has been greeted with satisfaction, but not elation. The country is unlikely to join the EU before 2020, and it will have to undertake a difficult process of reform in the interim. It is unlikely to become a member without first recognizing the independence of Kosovo, a region that seceded in 2008 and which remains a center of ethnic tensions in the heart of the Balkans. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what sort of EU Serbia will be joining, given the bloc’s current crisis.

On Feb. 23, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt announced on Twitter that Serbia’s bid for candidate status had been given the go-ahead by his counterparts across the EU. This clears the way for EU heads of government formally to confirm Serbia as a candidate when they meet later this week.

Serbia applied for candidacy in 2009, but its acceptance was stalled first by failure to catch high-ranking suspected war criminals and then by Belgrade’s recalcitrance on Kosovo, which the EU leadership regards as independent.

This time, the EU ministers’ decision came as little surprise after Serbia finally reached an agreement with the ethnic Albanian-dominated government in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. While Belgrade stands by its position that it will never recognize Kosovo’s independence, the two governments returned to the negotiating table this month with the understanding that a compromise would be likely to move both Serbia and Kosovo closer to EU membership.

On Feb. 24, Belgrade agreed that representatives from Pristina could attend regional gatherings on the condition that they accompany the title “Kosovo” with the asterisk, indicating a footnote detailing the region’s disputed status.

The agreement, and the subsequent acceptance of Serbia as an accession candidate, is a victory for the Western-leaning President Boris Tadic and his government, which faces elections by early May.

A long, multistep process 

As the experience of other post-Communist accession states indicates, Serbia faces a drawn-out process of administrative, judicial, and economic reforms before it can be accepted into the EU fold. The European Commission praised Serbia’s progress in these areas in its most recent report in October, but it also drew attention to areas in which it wants to see considerable improvement, including economic restructuring, strengthening the rule of law and recognition of fundamental rights. Most notably it urged that Belgrade “normalize relations with Kosovo.”

“We have made one more step toward the EU, and people are satisfied that we are a candidate country,” Serbian political commentator Bratislav Grubacic says. “But there is a long way ahead. Croatia applied for candidate status in 2003 and will only join in 2013. For Serbia, the process might last even longer – and finishing the Kosovo issue is likely to be a condition, which will be very sensitive.”

Mr. Grubacic expects Serbia to join in 2020 at the earliest. It partly depends on “the EU and what happens to it,” he says. The EU has been accused of changing the conditions for Serbia’s accession process in the past, and a hardening of opinion in existing member states against expansion could delay its membership further. Meanwhile, some more alarmist commentators suggest that the EU may even break up. It certainly could change in form.

Troubled EU still comes with benefits

These factors have already led to a significant softening of support for accession in Serbia, which recent polls suggest is only just over 50 percent. But Grubacic argues that, even with several years of difficult reform ahead, Serbs are unlikely to lose interest altogether.

“If there was a referendum, most would vote for membership,” he said. “We don’t have much choice – in the end, it’s natural for Serbia to join the EU.”

Despite occasional overtures to Russia, the current Serbian leadership is well aware of the benefits of moving toward the EU – not least ample EU funds to supplement its strapped national coffers and the reassurance it would give to much-needed investors. Joining would have the great symbolic importance of embedding Serbia in the liberal democratic mainstream, closing a post-Communist chapter of war and pariah status.

Many EU leaders, well aware of the potential of the Balkan tinderbox to cause conflagration, also see Serbia’s accession as strategically important, while being remote enough not to scare their electorates. They may also hope that pushing the membership process forward shores up Mr. Tadic, the president, against nationalist rivals, and that it sends the signal that the EU project is still on course.

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