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Serbia sets off on long march to EU entry

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Serbia sets off on long march to EU entry

Dacic - Fuele - Photo EC

(BRUSSELS) - Serbia officially set off on a long march to be the European Union's 29th member, starting long and possibly fraught talks Tuesday to bring its laws into line with European standards.

"This is an historic day for Serbia," probably "the most important since World War II", said Prime Minister Ivica Dacic.

"What pride to see the Serbian flag flying in Brussels!" added deputy premier Aleksandar Vucic as a large delegation of Serbian VIPs joined EU ministers and officials for the formal launch of membership talks.

The ceremony marked the first step in a process likely to last many years in which an aspiring member and EU officials negotiate 35 so-called EU chapters one by one, to align everything from press freedoms to light bulbs with EU regulations.

"Hard work will be needed and many challenges lie ahead," said the EU's Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele. "It will not be just a ticking of the boxes."

Serbia first applied for membership in 2009, in the throes of the financial crisis and amid rising worries the EU had expanded too far and too fast by embracing a bevy of struggling ex-Soviet states in 2004 and after.

First seen as a shoo-in for membership after the 2011 arrest of Balkans war criminals Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic after almost two decades on the run, Belgrade was then asked to do more for regional peace by easing ties with breakaway Kosovo.

It was an EU-brokered deal normalising relations with Kosovo last April that finally enabled Serbia to prise open the EU door.

"Serbia will need to remain fully committed to normalisation with Pristina," Fuele said.

Kosovo relations 'could slow process'

Belgrade, along with five EU states, does not recognise Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence in 2008. But last year's deal has eased tension over the 120,000 ethnic Serbs living there.

While the issue of recognition has been diplomatically left to one side, "everyone believes the issue will eventually come up," said an EU official speaking on condition of anonymity.

On the diplomatic and political front, Fuele noted, Serbia's progress towards EU membership "will set an inspiring example in the Western Balkans" as the EU moves to extends its influence.

It took a decade for latest newcomer Croatia to join in July 2012, but the EU official said the talks with Belgrade "may be completed a little more quickly, perhaps in several years, though the problem of relations with Kosovo could slow the process."

Serbia meanwhile hopes the start of accession talks will give a boost to its struggling economy after ratings agency Fitch downgraded its status from "BB-" to "B+" on the eve of the Brussels ceremony.

Unemployment is at 20.1 percent in the country of 7.1 million, with the public deficit on the rise, debt at 60 percent of GDP and average monthly salaries at a mere 400 euros ($540).

"Membership talks could be an encouraging message to foreign investors" that Serbia is set on the right track, said economic analyst Milan Culibrk.

But it needs notably to reform a giant public sector threatening to sink state finances and analyst Maja Bobic warned that it might "turn out that neither our administration or institutional capacities are ready."

"It will take years and investments to improve," said the analyst from the European Movement in Serbia think-tank.

First up in the negotiations will be two of the most difficult and important -- those on basic rights and the judiciary covered by chapters 23 and 24.

Also on the short-term horizon is chapter 35, which is an "any other business" chapter that could take on the difficult political question of Kosovo.

Officials in Serbia admit in private that there is a lack of local experts familiar with EU rule of law and procedure, such as preparing projects, applying for funds or implementing legislation.

Besides the economy, Serbia will also need to adjust agricultural, energy and environmental standards.

"All this needs serious adjustments and requires a lot of investment," said Bobic.

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