Romania has held up a deal among EU foreign ministers to grant candidate status to Serbia, with Bucharest demanding guarantees for minorities. The decision will be left to European leaders meeting later this week.
Foreign ministers of the European Union on Tuesday recommended making Serbia an official candidate for membership in the bloc, representing at least a partial victory for Belgrade's pro-EU government.
However, unexpected last-minute objections from Romania nearly put a halt to Serbia gaining the sought-after status. Bucharest was calling for guarantees that the rights be protected of some 30,000 Romanian-speaking Vlachs who live in Serbia, a demand that appeared to have taken ministers by surprise.
Belgrade had resolved the last major hitch to becoming a candidate country when it reached an agreement with its former province Kosovo on limited mutual recognition.
EU government heads will have the final say on Serbia's candidate status at a summit on Thursday and Friday.
Serbia still refuses to recognize Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence, and leaders have said that will always remain the case. However the Serbian government agreed on Friday after EU-moderated negotiations that Kosovo may be represented in international bodies under the title "Kosovo*" - the asterisk pointing to a footnote that explains international rulings on its status.
Most EU member states - all but Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain - have recognized Kosovo's sovereignty, and Serbia's hard-line stance on its neighbor is likely to remain a stumbling block on its path to membership.
Serbian President Boris Tadic had made EU candidacy a major policy goal, and EU leaders have been dangling candidate status like a carrot to pressure Belgrade to implement reforms. Serbia arrested war crimes suspects Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic last year, actions long demanded by the EU.
"Serbia has delivered, Kosovo has delivered and accordingly Europe should now also keep its word," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said at the foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels.
Long road ahead
If accepted, Serbia would join five other countries - fellow former Yugoslav republics Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro, plus Iceland and Turkey - as official candidates for membership. The move is only the first step in a long process - Croatia will have waited nine years from when it was granted candidate status to its scheduled entry into the EU next year.
Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb told reporters in Brussels that it was "a good day for both Serbia and Kosovo."
"I think the Western Balkans is one of the most strategic and important enlargements that we have in the EU," he said. "We just have a tendency to forget the importance of enlargement in the midst of the financial crisis."
acb, rc/msh (AP, AFP, dpa)