Serbia could become the 29th member of the European Union - accession negotiations begin on January 21. But the Balkan country’s path to membership isn’t easy; its relations with Kosovo are a sticking point.
For Belgrade, the start of accession negotiations with the EU is a historic step toward European integration. The first conference between Brussels and Belgrade at the government level is slated for January 21, 2014.
"That conference marks the actual start of the work and interaction between the member states and Serbia, of course with the support of the EU Commission," EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle told DW.
Since March 1, 2012, Serbia has been an officially recognized EU accession candidate. But no one can say with any certainty how long the negotiations will last - insiders estimate they could extend over a period of six years. That is how long the Croatian talks took: from 2005 to 2011, with the country officially becoming a new EU member on July 1, 2013.
"Serbia is a difficult candidate not only because of its history and conflicts with Kosovo, but also because of its difficult economic situation and the gaps that still remain in respecting the rule of law and strengthening political institutions," said Southeast Europe expert Dusan Reljic, who directs the Brussels office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Relations with Kosovo
In addition to the Copenhagen criteria - which include democracy, rule of law and economic competition and apply to all EU accession candidates - each EU candidate must meet a number of requirements specific to its particular situation.
For Serbia, one such requirement was its cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Belgrade satisfied that requirement with the arrest and extradition of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, both suspected of war crimes.
But another key condition has to do with its Kosovo relations. In 2008 the former southern Serbian province declared independence, which Belgrade has officially refused to recognize. Policymakers in the Serbian capital did however sign an agreement with the Kosovo government caling for broad autonomy for the Serb community in Kosovo, while at the same time limiting Belgrade's influence there.
During the accession negotiations, the EU will be closely monitoring Serbia's relations with Kosovo. A legally binding agreement on the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo will be necessary by the end of these talks, according to the EU.
But to join the EU, Belgrade will not need to recognize Kosovo officially as an independent state. Five other EU member states still do not: Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia.
Reserved toward Europe
Belgrade is governed by former nationalists who are meanwhile considered to be committed EU supporters. Directly after the turn of the millennium, nearly 80 percent of Serbs approved of their country joining the EU - but only 50 percent of them back the move today.
Several factors have contributed to dwindling support for EU accession, among them: the rapid recognition of Kosovo's independence by many EU member states; the growing impression that the EU is growing tired of expansion; and the fact that Serbia perceives some of the judgments reached by the Yugoslavian tribunal in The Hague as unjust - including the acquittal of Croatian General Ante Gotovina, who was one of the most wanted suspected war criminals in the Yugoslavian war.
Despite this reserved position toward Europe, Ivan Knezevic of the Serbian non-governmental organization European Movement in Serbia is convinced that in the event of a referendum on Serbia's European future, a clear majority would vote for EU accession.
The next steps in the negotiations, he said, will now be "harmonization of the country's own laws with EU law and the implementation of EU standards so that Serbian citizens actually see benefits." Serbs, he added, are already benefitting from the closer ties to Europe: since 2009, they can enter states within the Schengen zone without a visa.
Still, many obstacles line the way to EU accession - for example, corruption in Serbia is widespread. In its current Corruptions Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranked Serbia as 72 - so Serbia is perceived to be more corrupt than Namibia. Inflation is at about 8.5 percent and its new debt - at 7 percent - is the highest in the region, according to experts.
No automatic procedure
None of the officials involved in the talks, including Füle, are willing to speculate on a possible date for Serbia's EU accession. "There are no automatic procedures in EU enlargement," he said. "Not only the EU Commission must convince member states that Serbia will be prepared for membership by the end of the accession negotiations; the governments of the individual countries must convince their citizens, too."
Numerous politicians in Belgrade have stressed that the accession date in itself is not so important. What is most important, they argue, is the country's modernization.