European Union leaders agreed Friday to start
accession negotiations with Serbia, rewarding the Balkan country for
normalizing ties with its breakaway province Kosovo.
"We're at an historic moment for the Balkans and for Europe as a whole," said EU President Herman Van Rompuy, who chaired the leaders' talks in Brussels.
"Let's not forget what happened not so long ago in that part of Europe with one of the most violent wars we saw," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso added, referring to the Yugoslav conflict of the 1990s.
EU leaders called for the first intergovernmental conference with Serbian officials to take place "in January 2014 at the very latest."
Before that, negotiating guidelines will have to be finalized and confirmed by the leaders, who are next scheduled to hold summits in October and December.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the leaders' blessing will depend on "the implementation of all already-made decisions proceeding as planned."
Van Rompuy dismissed fears new requirements would be heaped onto Belgrade - a worry that had been expressed by Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic.
"It's the normal procedure that we are following and the (EU summit), when it confirms the negotiating framework, will not add additional conditions to it," he said.
Serbian leaders welcomed the summit decision, with President Tomislav Nikolic describing it on Twitter as "a signal that we are wanted and equal in the EU."
"The date and membership talks create new conditions for our economy and country to move forward," Transport Minister Milutin Mrkonjic added.
Dacic said he had hoped for an earlier date than January but called it an "historic day."
Serbia had yielded to EU pressure for the talks with Kosovo, after it became clear that they would be crucial for progress on its membership bid. Belgrade does not recognize its neighbour as an independent state.
The two sides have nevertheless managed to strike a landmark deal that is meant to remove obstacles to everyday life for their people.
"Police stations have gone, blockades have gone, people are able to arrive at the customs gate without any problem at all," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who brokered the agreement, noted Thursday during a debate at the European Parliament.
"I believe this process is irreversible, but it still needs to be helped, and I hope that the (summit) will make a good and strong decision," she had added.
Ashton is due to hold further talks with Dacic and Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci on July 8 in Brussels to discuss the implementation of the normalization deal.
EU leaders on Friday also endorsed the launch of negotiations with Kosovo on an association agreement - even though five EU countries don't recognize it as an independent country.
"I think this is also something that will strengthen the road towards more common ground and to the solving of problems," Merkel said.
The EU stands to benefit too from closer links with the Western Balkans, British Prime Minister David Cameron argued.
"We benefit in terms of trade, but we also benefit in terms of stability," he said.
Also on Friday, the EU leaders gave their blessing to Latvia's planned entry into the eurozone on January 1, 2014. The step needs to be rubber-stamped by finance ministers when they next meet on July 9.
The leaders additionally reviewed progress on reforming the eurozone to make it crisis-proof. Merkel said "a clear timetable" had been agreed, with further discussions on competitiveness in October and decisions on contractual reform pledges in December.
But Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker warned that "the impression can form that we have taken leave a bit from the more forward-looking ideas."
"I would have wished for a bit more dynamism in looking forward, not a dynamic of standing still," he added. "There was not a step back here, ... but it was not the bold moves that had been announced."
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