The European Union has recognized the outcome of Montenegro's referendum and offered closer ties to the soon-to-be independent country. But it's still a long way before Montenegro can actually join the EU.
Montenegro voted "Yes" in a state-wide referendum on independence
The European Union's executive arm offered on Tuesday to negotiate closer ties with Montenegro, which wants to join the bloc, after the tiny Balkan state voted for independence from Serbia.
"The European perspective is open to Montenegro -- as it is to Serbia once it fulfils the various criteria, in particular the cooperation with the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia)," said European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn in a statement.
EU Enlragement Commissioner Olli Rehn
Rehn said the commission would submit to EU governments a proposal for negotiating a new Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with an independent Montenegro and a revised proposal for negotiating an SAA with Serbia.
"The proposals will consolidate the results obtained and be the basis on which negotiations continue," he said.
Talks with Serbia-Montenegro were frozen early this month after Belgrade missed a deadline to hand over former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic to the UN tribunal. Mladic is wanted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The preliminary count of votes cast in the referendum on Sunday revealed that 55.5 percent of Montenegrins voted in favor of independence, just crossing the EU-set threshold of 55 percent.
55.5 percent of Montenegrins voted for independence
Yet the results are still to be made official. Pro-Serbian opponents have refused to recognize the outcome and have called for a recount.
The Montenegrin parliament must declare independence within 15 days of receiving the official results of the referendum.
"The commission would like to call the Montenegrin citizens and parties to preserve their unity and build a consensus about the future of the republic, the basis of European values and standards," said EU Commission spokesperson Amadeu Altafaj Tardio.
Independence without a doubt
Montenegrin Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic is adamant the voting result should stand. He thanked Brussels for their involvement in the referendum and said his main priority was integrating Montenegro into Europe.
Old Montenegrin battle flags are selling like hot cakes in Podgorica these days
"We believe the verification of that process should be marked by the recognition not only of the result of the referendum but also the recognition of the old new state," Vlahovic said.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who helped create the state of Serbia-Montenegro in 2002 despite Montenegrin reluctance at the time, will now have no other choice but to help dissolve it. Montenegro will be an independent state of just 600,000 people.
"I want to congratulate the Montenegrin people for the successful organization of the referendum," Solana said. "We are still waiting for the result of the audit but it seems everything was orderly and we want to congratulate everybody for that. It ran smoothly and without incidents."
Hold your horses
Yet, Solana feels it is too early to set a date for a partnership with the EU, as the Montenegrin and Serb governments first have to declare and recognize independence.
"I cannot tell you exactly when we are going to start talking with them but I think it's more important today that they start talking among themselves before we have anything to talk about," Solana said.
In the run-up to the referendum, Serbia had urged voters against dissolving the union, but has said it would accept the result. If they can now reach an agreement with Montenegro, the break-up of the former Yugoslavia will be complete and Europe will have its first new country for over 10 years.