Serbia has taken a step closer to joining the European Union. The bloc has set a date for the start of accession talks in recognition of Belgrade's democratic reforms and efforts in normalizing relations with Kosovo.
The European Union will begin long-awaited membership talks with Serbia on January 21, the bloc's Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle announced following a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.
The EU ministers for European Affairs had "acknowledged [Serbia's] reform and normalization efforts," Füle wrote on Twitter. "First intergovernmental conference planned for 21 January."
Serbia has long hoped to become the bloc's 29th member, following in the footsteps of neighbor Croatia which was granted membership in July.
"This is an historic event for Serbia, a day that many generations of citizens and numerous governments have awaited," Prime Minister Ivica Dacid said on the national RTS TV network.
"I am proud that this government reached it," he added.
European leaders were insistent, however, that the former pariah state first normalize relations with Kosovo. The two nations have been at odds since Kosovo broke away from Belgrade, unilaterally declaring independence in 2008.
Serbia - alongside five other EU states - still refuses to recognize Kosovo's independence.
Months of EU-brokered talks resulted in an agreement in April, however, which aimed at ending conflict between Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority and a pocket of some 50,000 Serbs in the north.
In a further sign of reform, ethic Serbs took part in a local election in northern Kosovo for the first time in November.
While Tuesday's announcement marks a significant step forward, the process for joining the bloc can take years. Of the five other nations once part of the former Yugoslavia, only Slovenia and Croatia have been granted membership.
ccp/av (AFP, Reuters, dpa)