European Union ministers have unanimously recommended the launch of accession talks with Serbia by January 2014 and negotiations with Kosovo on a lesser stabilization and association deal.
EU foreign and European affairs ministers meeting in Luxembourg have agreed that their 27-nation bloc should begin accession talks with Serbia and association talks with Kosovo. The Balkan rivals struck a deal to normalize ties in April.
A formal decision to open EU-Serbia talks is to be made on Friday at a Brussels summit of EU heads of state. EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said those talks could begin "as early as October" and at the "very latest" in January.
Serbia's neighbor and fellow ex-Yugoslav republic Croatia will join the EU on July 1. Slovenia joined the EU in 2004. Tiny Montenegro began membership talks last year.
For Kosovo, which has a majority ethnic Albanian population, an association agreement could be a step on the path to eventual EU membership that could bring economic benefits.
'Unprecedented,' says EU
Fuele praised what he called Belgrade and Pristina's "unprecedented steps" towards normalization, saying it was a "good day for both."
The initiatives come just before Ireland hands the EU's rotating presidency on to Lithuania early next week.
The EU requires fulfillment of 35 so-called chapters or policies before accession. Fuele said Serbia would first be scrutinized on fundamental rights and the rule of law listed under chapters 23 and 24.
Recognition of Kosovo patchy
Kosovo broke away from Serbia in a 1998-99 war in which NATO intervened with airstrikes and unilaterally proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008. Five of the EU's member states still do not recognize the former Serbian province.
Neither does Serbia, which - however - agreed to EU-mediated talks with Kosovo in April as a condition toward EU membership.
In Belgrade, President Tomislav Nikolic said Serbia had done "anything to become a member of the European family."
"I am convinced that … the European Union will open to Serbia an historic opportunity," he said.
France praises initiative
French European Affairs Minister Thierry Repentin said Serbia and Kosovo deserved access. "Their leaders have shown great political courage," Repentin said in Luxembourg.
The EU negotiation process with Serbia could still take years, but help lure investors for its ailing economy and rebuild the image of the once pariah state that emerged after the 1991 collapse of Yugoslavia.
In 2011, Serbia handed over for international trial the former Bosnia Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, thereby meeting a key demand of the European Union.
Mladic and Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic are currently on trial on genocide charges before the UN International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
ipj/slk (Reuters, dpa, AP)