European foreign ministers were meant to give a green light to Serbia's negotiations for entry into the European Union. But then Romania blocked a final decision. Now the matter is in the hands of EU government leaders.
Danish Europe Minister Nicolai Wammen made an announcement late on Tuesday that sounded like good news for Serbia at first.
"All member states can recommend that Serbia achieves the status of an EU membership candidate. We agree that Serbia has fulfilled the necessary criteria." The keyword there was "recommend."
But this recommendation is not a final decision, because at the eleventh hour, Romania blocked a final decision. Now EU heads of state must make that decision at end of the week at a summit in Brussels.
No mood for celebration
This was a complete surprise to the rest of the EU partners. The Romanian government is demanding that Belgrade recognizes the Vlachs, a Romanian-speaking minority in Serbia, as Romanian. Even though it is far from clear whether the Vlachs themselves want this.
Serbian President Boris Tadic had traveled to Brussels to celebrate his country's official new candidate status. "Serbia accepts all the Copenhagen criteria," he said icily, referring to the EU's conditions for candidacy status. "But Serbia will not accept what is not in line with these criteria." He added that Serbia's protection of minorities now met the highest standards.
Most observers consider Romania's demand as an unnessary obstruction, and suggest that President Traian Basescu is trying to score domestic points by avenging the fact that Romania has not been allowed into the Schengen Area. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called this "not the right European spirit."
Huge significance for Kosovo
On arrival in Brussels, Westerwelle said that Serbia had fulfilled all of the EU's conditions, and now the EU must "keep its word." He added that the entire region needed to be stabilized.
"We shouldn't forget that for many years this was a hotbed," he said. At a summit in December, Germany was among those that refused Serbia candidate status. But the decisive breakthrough came last week, when Serbia reached an agreement with Kosovo for jointly administering of their border.
According to that agreement, Serbia still does not recognize its former province as an independent state, but it does recognize that Kosovo can represent itself at regional conferences.
As Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said, this opens new perspectives. "It paves the way for contractual agreements between Kosovo and the European Union, and that is of course hugely important for Kosovo."
If Serbia has candidate status, then EU states can also call on the European Commission to implement a feasibility study for a stabilization and association agreement with Kosovo. Such an agreement would be a preliminary step towards future membership. This is quite extraordinary, since many EU countries apart from Serbia also don't recognize Kosovo as a state – Spain, Romania, Greece and Cyprus also refuse.
Expansion remains important
But whether it's for Serbia or Kosovo, the EU is currently in no mood for expansion. With its hands full with the euro crisis, the EU is mainly preoccupied with itself at the moment.
But Finnish Europe Minister Alexander Stubb thinks that Europe must continue its plan to integrate the Balkan region. "The western Balkan area is one of the most strategic and important expansions of the European Union," he said. "It's easy to forget the importance of expansion in the midst of the financial crisis."
The decision on Serbian candidate-status is now expected to be made at the summit on Thursday or Friday. But it doesn't mean that membership negotiations will start immediately. No dates have been named for negotiations, let alone for an eventual membership for Serbia. For the Serbs, meanwhile the most important thing is that they take a decisive step towards Europe.
Author: Christoph Hasselbach, Brussels / bk
Editor: Nicole Goebel