The European Commission has recommended that Serbia become a candidate to join the European Union as a reward for democratic reforms and the capture of war crimes fugitives, but expressed concern that Turkey’s membership drive had stalled.
In its annual report on countries wishing to join the bloc, the EU executive said Serbia’s new status was conditional on it resuming talks on practical co-operation with its former breakaway province Kosovo.
The talks broke down in September.
“I recommend granting Serbia candidate status on the understanding that Serbia re-engages in the dialogue with Kosovo and is moving swiftly to the implementation in good faith of agreements reached to date,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said in a speech in Brussels on Wednesday.
Tadic said he was “convinced it is possible for Serbia to get a candidate status in December and to open perspectives for a starting date for accession talks”.
Serbia has satisfied one of the main demands of the European Union for membership by catching fugitives wanted for crimes during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, including Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander who was on the run for 16 years until he was caught in May this year.
But its relations with Kosovo remain a sticking point.
Belgrade lost control of Kosovo in 1999 following a NATO bombing campaign against the former Republic of Yugoslavia.
With Western backing, Pristina declared independence in 2008, a move Serbia refuses to recognise.
Tensions have worsened in recent weeks over border and trade disputes that led to clashes in which one policeman died and dozens of NATO peacekeepers and Serb protesters were injured.
Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, while saying Belgrade was “committed to dialogue,” also said Serbia’s policy towards Kosovo “will not change as a result of the European Commission’s opinion”.
Al Jazeera’s Barnaby Phillips reporting from Belgrade said that while Kosovo was on the backburner for a while now the message from European leaders, particularly Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is clear: “You have to sort out, you have to sort out your differences with Kosovo”.
Phillips however said that this is likely to be problematic for years to come. He estimated that some 99 per cent of Serbs find it very difficult to conceive of an independent Kosovon state.
“Likewise,” he said, “99 per cent of Kosovan Albanians find it very difficult to conceive of the idea that they will ever be a part of Serbia again.
Responding to the report, Serbian President Boris Tadic said: “I am proud because the European Commission considers as very successful reforms carried out by Serbia.”
In the same report, the commission criticised Turkey, the largest EU candidate, for not doing enough to normalise relations with EU member Cyprus.
In a reference to a recent disagreement over gas drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean, it told Ankara to avoid threats that could further damage ties.
Fuele said both Brussels and Ankara were frustrated by the lack of progress in Turkey’s EU accession, which is caused in part by opposition from Cyprus as well as by French and German reluctance to admit the largely Muslim state.
“Regrettably, accession negotiations have not moved forward for more than one year. There are frustrations about this on both sides,” he said, adding that the EU should work out ways to keep Ankara engaged.
“These [frustrations] should not blind us from the importance of our relationship, or the underlying fundamentals, which remain good.
“I believe it is time to work for a renewed positive agenda in EU-Turkey relations.”
European policymakers are concerned about losing influence with Turkey at a time when Ankara’s clout is rising in the Middle East and North Africa, where popular revolts this year have created uncertainty over future alliances.
Turkey also oversees important energy corridors from Asia to Europe, and wields significant influence over whether illegal migrants from Africa can reach Europe.
The EU executive also recommended on Wednesday that the bloc starts accession talks with the tiny former Yugoslav state of Montenegro.