Granting Serbia EU candidate status after years of waiting is an important step for the country and its reform efforts. But there is still a long way to go until Serbia reaches EU membership, DW's Verica Spasovska says.
Optimism in Serbia - the country has at last officially been awarded candidate status. For the time being, this is simply an opportunity. Other countries in the Western Balkans have had the same status for some time now, but without having gotten significantly closer to the EU in recent years. Macedonia, for instance, has hit a brick wall because of a quarrel over its name with Greece and hasn't received a date for opening accession negotiations to this day.
But still: with this foreign policy success in the bag, Serbian President Boris Tadic has received a boost for his election campaign. A new parliament is going to be elected in May. Support from Brussels for his pro-European approach couldn't have been clearer. It will be difficult for national conservative political opponents like former Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to win votes. Particularly since Brussels' gesture has freed Serbia from its image as a Pariah state, an image that was associated with the country for more than two decades because of its military conflicts in the Balkans. The doors to euro-Atlantic integration have never been as wide open as they are now.
Dispute with Kosovo still not solved
In order to continue on this path, the territorial dispute with Kosovo has to be solved. Because as long as the sovereignty of Kosovo is disputed, which Serbia still claims to be part of its own territory, it blocks the EU accession process of both countries and divides the EU. Five EU countries have still not recognized Kosovo as a sovereign state.
What makes matters worse is Serbia's more or less open advertisement for an annexation of North Kosovo to Serbia where Serbians are in the majority. Is the solution to the Kosovo issue to change national borders once again? I would strongly advise against this, because fresh corrective actions on Balkan borders could have a knock-on effect since they would also directly affect neighboring countries such as Bosnia and Macedonia due to their minority problems. And more than 80 countries have already recognized Kosovo in its existing borders.
A perspective for the whole region
EU membership is only possible if painful reforms are implemented, says Verica Spasovska
The Kosovo issue can only be solved in the long run if the EU puts the topic on its agenda. With the EU's mediation, real negotiations on the status of North Kosovo need to take place that releases the "dialogue" between Belgrade and Pristina from everyday problems. If the European Union wants to save itself from another territorial conflict such as the one in Cyprus, it has to become more active as a mediator.
The invitation from Brussels is not only an important step for Serbia on its path to EU integration. It also shows that the EU - despite all the turbulence caused by the financial crisis - still holds on to its enlargement strategy for countries in the West Balkans. That's an encouraging signal for all countries of the region to continue their reform efforts.
Reforms are needed
But Brussels' decision should not hide the fact that there's still quite a bit amiss in Serbia and that the Serbian government needs to tackle unpopular reforms more than ever. The country's public administration needs to be modernized, corruption has to be fought a lot harder and excessive bureaucracy needs to be reduced. Since the repercussions of the financial crisis have also left a mark on Serbia, the government in Belgrade needs to implement economic reforms, for instance privatize nationally-owned companies. The independence of justice also has to be guaranteed.
The government in Belgrade should tell voters the truth: The accession to the EU is only possible if painful reforms are implemented. This could curb Serbia's optimism. But it protects them from false expectations and a rude awakening. Their Greek neighbors can tell them well enough how that feels.
Author: Verica Spasovska /sst
Editor: Joanna Impey