EU leaders decide to grant Serbia candidate status


SERBIAN PRESIDENT Boris Tadic has said the European Union’s decision to make Serbia an official candidate for membership is a “great achievement” which opens the path to prosperity and helps turn the page on the bloody recent history of former Yugoslavia.

Leaders of the 27 EU states approved Belgrade’s candidacy in recognition of its long-awaited capture of major war crimes suspects and signs that it is willing to improve relations with Kosovo. The former Serb province declared independence in 2008.

Brussels also hopes to boost the chances of Mr Tadic’s liberal allies in a general election this spring. But nationalists are expected to mount a strong challenge and question the benefits of EU membership over closer ties with Serbia’s traditional ally, Russia, and economic powerhouse China.

“This is a great achievement for Serbian citizens. But we will have to do more work from now on to get a date for the negotiations and to complete them and to become an EU member,” said Mr Tadic, noting that his country could now hope for more foreign investment.

“That’s a fundamental, central issue for the improvement of our entire economy. Serbia today does not have the means to modernise and develop the economy, but that could change now . . . It’s not just about a political process and integration, it’s an open door to prosperity.”

Serbia will now be eligible for more EU aid, helping bolster an economy in the doldrums as demand dwindles in many export markets.

Last year, Serbia finally captured Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, the two remaining Serb fugitives sought by the United Nations court at The Hague. They were extradited to the UN tribunal and face charges of war crimes for their roles in the wars that convulsed the Balkans in the 1990s.

In recent months, Mr Tadic’s government has also shown a more constructive approach over Kosovo, the 90-per cent ethnic Albanian state where separatist rebels fought Belgrade’s forces in a bloody 1998-1999 war, which was ended by Nato bombing and the establishment of UN control.

Mr Tadic was critical of a recent campaign by Serbs in northern Kosovo to blockade the border with Serbia and last month agreed to allow Kosovo to take part in regional organisations.

He insists, however, that he will never recognise Kosovo’s independence and stresses that Brussels is not demanding that Serbia do that to join the bloc.

He says that five EU members – Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia – do not recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty.

Serbia hopes to start accession talks in 2012, but they are expected to last for several years.

Analysts say it is not clear how much of a boost EU-candidate status will give to the liberal government in its looming election battle with more nationalistic parties.

Many Serbs are deeply disenchanted by the long road to eventual EU membership and its lack of immediate, tangible benefits.