Serbia hails 'new beginning' with start of EU talks

23/12/2013

EU membership negotiations with Serbia start January 21st, but the question of Kosovo still remains.

By Igor Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 23/12/13

photo

Serbia has moved another step on its road to EU membership. [AFP]

Belgrade officials welcomed the EU foreign ministers' decision to launch accession talks with Serbia on January 21st, calling the upcoming process "a new beginning" for the state that was in international isolation during the 1990s.

"Serbia is going to Europe, and I'm certain there will be no stopping it. I hope that January 21st will mark a new beginning for overall reforms in Serbia and that we will show we can do the job better than others. We don't want to be a mediocre country, we want to be at the top," Prime Minister Ivica Dacic told reporters on December 18th, a day after the decision was announced.

He added that Serbia wanted to "set a record" in the pace of negotiations with the EU and to wrap them up in five to six years.

However, Dacic said, the normalisation of relations with Kosovo will be the most difficult task for Belgrade on its road to the EU.

The negotiating framework adopted by the EU ministers states that Belgrade and Pristina must sign a legally binding agreement on the comprehensive normalisation of relations prior to Serbia's admission to the Union.

Although EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule has said that does not mean that Serbia must recognise Kosovo's independence, many in Belgrade feel differently.

"It is clear that prior to joining the EU, Serbia will have to recognise Kosovo, regardless of what Serbian government officials might say," Slobodan Samardzic, vice president of the opposition Democratic Party of Serbia, told SETimes.

Predrag Simic, a professor of the Belgrade Faculty of Political Sciences, agreed.

"Before joining the EU, Serbia and Kosovo will have to sign a binding agreement, which is practically the recognition of Kosovo's independence. Therefore, this is a victory for Belgrade, but it may very well be pyrrhic," Simic told SETimes.

But Dacic said no one actually knows what the formulation on the binding agreement between Belgrade and Pristina means.

"The Brussels Agreement is also binding, yet it does not mean the recognition of Kosovo," he said, adding that the EU should clarify certain formulations in the negotiating framework with Serbia.

Dacic said Serbia would not change its position and would not recognise Kosovo, even if that turned out to be a condition for EU membership.

European Integration Minister Branko Ruzic said negotiations between Serbia and the EU would run in parallel processes -- the normalisation of relations with Pristina and the actual negotiations with the EU.

Kosovo Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi said the normalisation of relations has been one of the highlights for not only the Balkans, but for Europe.

"Who would have said a year ago that Serbia would recognise unambiguously Kosovo laws and Kosovo's Ahtisariian constitutional fibre, even if it doesn't recognise the independence of Kosovo yet? Who would have said that Kosovo would be on the verge of signing a stabilisation and association treaty, while Serbia starts negotiations as an EU candidate?" Selimi told SETimes.

"These are immense results, which confirm that 2013 has been a historic year for the EU integrations of both countries," Selimi added.

The relationship with the EU will be good for Serbia and the region, Ana Trgovcevic, an economist in Belgrade, told SETimes.

"By associating with the EU we will surely become more stable and more attractive to investment. That also means new jobs," Trgovcevic said.

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But Vedran Jankovic, a salesman in Belgrade, said he suspects the EU's decision will not have much of an impact on life in Serbia.

"Look at how the Greeks, Bulgarians and Romanians are living, and they're members of the EU. We are still far from membership, plus we're being asked to recognise Kosovo," Jankovic said.

Correspondent Linda Karadaku in Pristina contributed to this report.

Should the recognition of Kosovo's independence be a condition for Serbia to join the EU? Why or why not? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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