The former Yugoslav republic of Serbia will begin negotiating its potential entry into the European Union following a decision during a two-day EU summit. Leaders said talks would start in January 2014 "at the latest."
Serbia has come a long way since the civil Yugoslav strife and wars of the 1990s, having been earmarked for negotiations to join the European Union at this week's EU summit. The two-day conference ended on Friday, with Serb leaders getting the green light for EU entry talks.
"We are at a historic moment for the Balkans and for Europe as a whole," European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said on Friday, noting that the decision came just days before Croatia is set to join the European Union on Monday.
The summit leaders agreed talks with Serbia would start in January 2014 "at the very latest." This week's decision reflects a change in how Serbia is viewed, no longer considered a pariah over its role in the wars that plagued the Balkans in the 1990s.
The EU summit decision applauds Belgrade's move to improve relations with its former province of Kosovo, which seceded in 2008. The two nations had suffered strained relations since the secession, but EU-brokered talks brought the two sides together in April, resulting in an agreement to normalize relations.
In giving Serbia a potential nod toward membership, the EU summit leaders also agreed that Brussels should hold talks with Kosovo over an association agreement covering trade, economic and political relations as a first step on the path to EU membership down the road.
"These ... decisions are an immediate result of the courageous agreement Belgrade and Pristina reached last April," Van Rompuy said.
Celebrations and opponents
Serbian leaders were quick to respond positively to the news of pending EU accession talks.
Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, leader of the co-ruling Socialists and ex-spokesman for late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, said his government had worked hard for the EU bid.
"The date for [EU] accession talks is the first step of this great journey we are about to undertake," Dacic said in a live broadcast of a cabinet session.
In Belgrade, meanwhile, nationalists opposed to EU accession rallied peacefully against the decision.
Dacic said he hoped the membership talks could be finished within four or five years, but many believe Brussels will put off Serbian admittance until at least 2020.
Croatia, set to join the EU on Monday, for example, endured 10 years of tough membership negotiations.
tm/ccp (AP, AFP, Reuters)