Serbia was declared a candidate to join the European Union, taking a further step out of the isolation it suffered after the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
The status, confirmed at an EU summit today in Brussels, moves Serbia closer to starting EU entry talks, a multi-year process that comes with no guarantee of admission and is clouded by tensions with Kosovo, a province that broke away from Serb rule in 2008.
Serbia, the largest ex-Yugoslav republic, is counting on the drive toward membership to strengthen its economy at a time of 24.4 percent unemployment. Growth is set to shrink to 0.5 percent this year from 1.9 percent in 2011, as the euro area’s fiscal crisis weighs on demand for Serbia’s exports and bites into investor appetite for its bonds.
Serbia will also gain access to an additional 26 EU aid programs, boosting its annual funding from the bloc from 200 million euros ($266 million), said Ognjen Miric, deputy head of Serbia’s EU integration office.
“The candidacy is a message to investors that Serbia is more ready for foreign investment,” Miric said in a Feb. 29 interview in Belgrade.
The national enmities that linger in the Balkans came close to stopping Serbia from moving ahead. At a meeting of lower-level ministers on Feb. 28, neighboring Romania raised last-minute objections, pressing Serbia to first guarantee better rights for its 30,000-strong Romanian minority. Romania also demanded that it be let into the passport-free travel zone that covers most EU countries.
Instead of delivering the candidacy status, all the ministers could do was issue a recommendation for today’s summit. The non-decision was a snub for Serb President Boris Tadic, who had journeyed to Brussels to mark the occasion. Tadic is banking on the EU signal to boost his party’s prospects in parliamentary elections due in late April or early May.
In power since 2004, Tadic has sought to steer Serbia toward Europe without alienating public opinion that is overwhelmingly against concessions on Kosovo, recognized as an independent state by most EU countries and the U.S.
While continuing to assert sovereignty over Kosovo, Serbia last week agreed to let Kosovo government representatives take part in international meetings.
Today’s EU declaration came without a date for the start of entry talks. With Europe focused on resolving the debt crisis, further expansion has taken a back seat. Croatia, Serbia’s ex-Yugoslav neighbor, took eight years to go from candidate status to expected entry in mid-2013, and no timeline was set for Serbia.
Serbia joins Montenegro and the Republic of Macedonia as official Balkan EU candidates. Three others -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo -- are further back in the process.