EU to launch accession talks with Serbia in January

The decision was announced after EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, presented a report, which said all the main elements of the April agreement with Kosovo had been taken forward “at an accelerated pace throughout these months and changes on the ground are now a part of everyday reality”. According to her, the recent local elections in Kosovo, which the report describes as the “key element of the April agreement”, were a success. 

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle said after the presentation that Greece planned to schedule the first intergovernmental conference between the EU and Serbia for January 21, during that country's presidency of the EU. "This is a historic moment for Serbia," Serbia's Prime Minister Ivica Dacic told state television. 

Legally binding agreement with Kosovo
The foreign ministers of EU member-states included in the framework for the talks a clause that had been disputed, which says that Belgrade and Pristina have to sign a legally binding agreement by the end of the accession talks with Serbia. Several countries led by Spain opposed this clause until now, but they accepted it in the end at Germany's insistence. The framework for the talks also states that the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina should lead to a comprehensive normalization of relations between the two sides. Germany had insisted on the term "full normalization," but it accepted in the end a somewhat milder wording proposed by Lithuania.

Füle did not answer directly to the question of whether the mention of a legally binding document in the framework for the talks meant the EU expected Serbia to recognize Kosovo at the end of the negotiations.

Historical background
In 2008 Kosovo unilaterally proclaimed independence from Serbia. Since then, relations between Pristina and Belgrade have mostly been frozen. Serbia and several other countries, including Russia,  China and five EU member states, do not recognize the sovereignty of Kosovo. After months of EU-brokered talks, the two sides reached an agreement in April 2013 aimed at ending the virtual ethnic partition of Kosovo between its ethnic Albanian majority and Serb controlled north. With the deal authorities in Pristina would gain more institutional control over northern Kosovo while the Kosovo Serbs got a certain level of autonomy by agreement on the establishment of Serb ruled municipalities.

The EU granted Serbia candidate status in March 2012. In April 2013, the Commission recommended opening negotiations on accession, once the country had “met the key priority of taking steps towards a visible and sustainable improvement of relations with Kosovo”.

The main challenges that Serbia faces, beside Kosovo, are the rule of law, especially judicial reform, the fight against corruption and organized crime, public administration reform, the independence of key institutions, freedom of the media, countering discrimination and protection of minorities.

The Council also discussed progress in Montenegro, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.  

Sources: BalkanInsight, B92, Radio Free Europe, Reuters and Council of the EU website

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