BELGRADE Serbia has gained new momentum on its path to join the European Union after agreeing to negotiate with its former province of Kosovo, the EU's enlargement commissioner said on Friday.
Earlier this week, EU officials said the Council of Ministers would discuss Serbia's candidacy next month. Serbian officials hope to be granted by the end of next year the candidacy status, a step that precedes membership negotiations.
"What I felt for the first time was a reflection of this new momentum," Stefan Fuele said after meeting Serbian President Boris Tadic and other top officials. "There has been a lot of good progress as far as the European Union relationship."
Serbia cleared a major obstacle to EU integration last week by saying it would negotiate with Kosovo on practical issues involving the two countries. It had earlier wanted to challenge the status of Kosovo, whose independence it does not recognize, in the United Nations.
"We'd like to begin talks on becoming EU members as soon as possible," Tadic told a joint news conference. "I believe we can start negotiations on membership by the end of next year or early 2012. Once that happens, Serbia will really be on the way to EU membership."
EU diplomats said the bloc's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton plans to meet representatives of Serbia and Kosovo during a U.N. General Assembly next week to press ahead with the talks.
She wants to discuss a framework that could include a start date and a list of issues to be put on the table.
"The High Representative hopes to have a first opportunity to meet representatives of Serbia and Kosovo, as well as other international partners such as the United States, next week in New York to listen to their views," one EU diplomat said.
Belgrade has moved slowly toward EU membership since 1990s wartime strongman Slobodan Milosevic fell from power a decade ago.
Neighboring Croatia hopes to join the EU in 2012, but Serbia -- the largest of the former Yugoslav republics - now lags behind Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania in the process.
Elsewhere in the region, only Bosnia and Kosovo have yet to apply to join the EU as they remain international protectorates because of continuing concern about ethnic tensions there.
KOSOVO, MLADIC OBSTACLES
One longer term obstacle for Serbia's EU aspirations is Belgrade's lack of recognition of Kosovo's independence, in contrast to most EU members.
"They cannot become a member without properly addressing this issue," Fuele told Reuters. He said a candidate country with an unresolved issue or conflict could hardly expect to be allowed to join the European Union."
Another issue for Serbia is the EU's insistence that it arrest war crimes suspect General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb wartime commander. However, the issue has receded somewhat over the past year as Serbia has convinced officials it is making strong, if still unsuccessful, efforts in that direction.
"We will do everything in our power to arrest them and send them to the Hague tribunal," Tadic said about Mladic and a second war crimes suspect. "I hope that page of history will soon be closed."
Asked if Serbia could achieve "full cooperation" with the war crimes tribunal without actually finding Mladic, Fuele said it was up to the U.N. war crimes prosecutor to determine.
Croatia had faced a similar problem with its fugitive war crimes suspect, ex-general Ante Gotovina. It received the endorsement of the prosecutor and started EU talks two months before Gotovina was detained in December 2005.
(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Ralph Boulton)