Serbia has been awarded EU candidate status and has taken a concrete step towards becoming a full member of the bloc. But what obstacles lie in its path?
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann was visibly pleased at Serbia being given EU candidate status on Thursday. He described the move as a development towards peace in the Western Balkans. Austria, said Faymann, had always been a strong advocate of EU perspectives in the region. And he was pleased that Romania, which had blocked Serbia's candidacy, finally approved it.
The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, described the fact that Serbia had been awarded candidate status as a logical decision. He said the EU is a community governed by laws which has laid down criteria that states must fulfill before they can become candidates. Schulz added that, "Serbia meets these criteria."
Work to be done
Werner Faymann is a strong advocate of Serbia's EU candidacy
Rosa Balfour from the Brussels-based think tank the European Policy Centre (EPC) believes that Serbia is the best-prepared structurally of all the countries of the Western Balkans. Its public administration is efficiently organized and its institutions are in a position to implement the reforms that are necessary to meet the criteria. Balfour says the country will also be able to introduce the other far-reaching and dramatic reforms which are needed to turn Serbia into a functioning democracy.
However Rosa Balfour says one of the main problems still to be resolved is the question of Kosovo. Serbia will not become a member of the EU unless it recognizes Kosovo - even if the EU doesn't state this outright. Brussels, says Balfour, will not allow a second "Cyprus scenario." Cyprus became a member of the EU in 2004, without having resolved the question of reunifying the Greek south and the Turkish north.
But Balfour believes that if all goes well, a solution to this problem will be found during Serbia's accession negotiations. The worst case scenario, she adds, is that relations will improve, but not lead to the recognition of Kosovo or to a change in the status quo in the region. And that could result in deadlock and conflict, which would be bad not only for the region, but also for the EU.
Romania had blocked the decision to award candidate status to Serbia. Bucharest argued it wanted more assurances over the rights of a Romanian minority in Serbia, the Vlachs. But there was speculation that Romania was holding out on Serbia's candidacy in return for being allowed to join the border-free Schengen Area. If that was indeed the case, Bucharest's strategy didn't work: the Schengen area was not expanded at the EU summit.
Rosa Balfour says the region is a bit like Pandora's box. Because so many different minorities live in the Balkans there is always a potential for conflict. The EU, the Council of Europe and the OSCE monitor minority rights in the Balkans very closely.
But the EU is currently burdened by the debt crisis. And enlargements of the bloc in 2004 and 2007, as well as problems over EU treaties in recent years, have taken their toll. There's already talk of enlargement fatigue within the EU.
Balfour concedes there's not much enthusiasm within the EU for enlargement. The bloc has been through tough times, she says. And in many ways that's delayed its expansion into the Western Balkans. But she's confident that this enlargement will go ahead. However, she warns that the EU will have to make sure that there's a strict compliance with the rule of law, fundamental freedoms and the efficiency of public administration.
Author: Daphne Grathwohl / hs
Editor: Joanna Impey