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Serbia wins EU support to begin membership talks

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(LUXEMBOURG) - European Union ministers on Tuesday unanimously recommended that Serbia begin EU membership negotiations by the very latest in January 2014, as the former pariah state said it had done "everything to become a member of the European family".

A formal decision to open EU-Serbia talks will be handed down on Friday by EU heads of state and government, the EU's Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said.

He said the talks would begin in January "at the very latest" and perhaps "as early as October."

This week's EU summit would also formally adopt Friday a mandate to start talks on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo, he added.

The decision in Luxembourg by EU European Affairs ministers to open the EU door to both Serbia and Kosovo follows an historic agreement struck between the two on April 19 to normalise their ties.

"This is a good day for both," Fuele said.

"They have exceeded our expectations in putting their relations on a new footing."

Ahead of the EU announcement, President Tomislav Nikolic said in Belgrade: "Serbia did everything to become a member of the European family.

"I am convinced that... the European Union will open to Serbia an historic opportunity... to live in dignity within its European family," he said in a public address.

Brussels had made it clear that both sides must implement the terms of the April agreement before moving forward on the road to eventual EU membership.

In March 2011, the EU launched talks to help the two normalise relations and solve everyday problems for their citizens, such as the mutual recognition of university degrees and property records.

After the April agreement, Serbian leaders had hoped to be given a start date for the talks in the autumn when EU leaders meet at the summit this week.

But German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said during talks with counterparts in Luxembourg that a 2014 date for Belgrade to begin EU accession talks would be more "reasonable".

"This would give the opportunity to observe which steps in the implementation are really made," he told reporters.

The majority of EU states had argued in favour of a December 2013 or even October 2013 start date.

Though five of the EU's 27 member states do not recognise the former Serbian province, this week's summit will also endorse efforts to reach an association deal with Pristina.

Kosovo unilaterally proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008.

Serbia and Kosovo "have shown great political courage," French European Affairs Minister Thierry Repentin said after the talks in Luxembourg.

He said the latest possible start of January 2014 "does not mean that the talks cannot start earlier".

Repentin said France wanted the approach towards both Belgrade and Pristina to be "very symmetrical to advance at the same time with the same requirements".

Fuele said the European Commission will present as quickly as possible a draft negotiating framework for Serbia that will have to be approved by EU ministers.

The first issues to be addressed in the talks will concern rule of law and fundamental rights under the sets of policy rules and regulations known as chapters 23 and 24, Fuele said.

Would-be EU members need to negotiate 35 so-called chapters before winning entry into the European club.

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