Serbia's push for EU entry snagged by Lithuania, Romania
(BRUSSELS) - Serbia appeared on course Monday to clear a first hurdle in its bid to join the EU, but objections from Lithuania and Romania snagged a clear deal.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe left talks with his 26 counterparts, saying "there was an agreement today" on granting the Balkan state candidate status. But Lithuanian counterpart Audronius Azubalis disagreed, telling AFP "there was no unanimous opinion."
A formal decision on naming Serbia a candidate to the European Union is due from European affairs ministers on Tuesday, with an EU summit delivering the final verdict on Serbia's long-awaited European ambitions on March 1 and 2.
"I hope tomorrow Serbia is going to reach candidate status," said President Boris Tadic in a brief statement to the Brussels media. "I think Serbia is deserving candidate status."
But EU diplomats said Romania sought guarantees on respect of the Romanian minority settled in Serbia, while Lithuania's concerns followed a bitter spat with Serbia over chairmanship of the UN General Assembly, as well as trade issues.
But Vilnius was also wary of Belgrade's friendship with Moscow, a diplomat said. "They see Serbia as a part of Russia in the EU. It's a real issue for Lithuania."
Azubalis however put his country's concerns down to continuing problems on the flashpoint border, scene of recurrent violence in past months between NATO peacekeepers and angry Serbs who make up the majority in northern Kosovo but who reject independence.
A Polish diplomat denied that his country too was reticent over Belgrade's pro-Moscow leanings.
In past months, Germany and Britain notably refused to greenlight Belgrade's drive to join the EU club until it eased tensions with Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence in 2008.
But Friday brought a key breakthrough in almost a year of efforts to defuse tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.
In the 11th-hour deal just days before the EU summit deadline, Belgrade agreed to the breakaway province becoming a full diplomatic player on the Western Balkans scene, alongside Serbia.
The accord notably allows Kosovo to take part in official regional meetings and organisations under the title "Kosovo*" -- the asterisk referring to a footnote outlining distinct international rulings on its disputed status.
The deal will allow Kosovo to sign agreements and speak for itself, a role previously ascribed to the UN mission in Kosovo UNMIK.
After last year's arrest of longtime wanted war criminals Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, Belgrade appeared to be a shoo-in for candidacy to the bloc but some EU members wanted to see more progress in its ties with Kosovo.
A decision to open the EU door to Belgrade was postponed in December because of hitches in the EU-sponsored Serbia-Kosovo talks that began in March.
But going into Monday's ministerial talks, several foreign ministers praised Belgrade for going the extra mile.
"Serbia has fulfilled the conditions for candidate status," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said while Belgian counterpart Didier Reynders vowed to plead in Belgrade's favour.
Bildt said the deal also "paves the way to a contractual relationship between Kosovo and the EU, tremendously significant for Kosovo if that happens."
The EU is expected to promise a feasibility study on a possible association agreement between the bloc and Kosovo, although several member states still refuse to recognise Pristina.