Serbia gets EU candidate status, Romania gets nothing
EU leaders on Thursday (1 March) with 13 little words took a step hard to imagine in 1999, when Nato planes were bombing Belgrade, or even this time last year, when Serbia was still sheltering war crimes fugitives from The Hague.
"The European Council today agreed to grant Serbia the status of candidate country," they said in a formal communique at a summit in Brussels.
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The next step, opening accession talks, could come in December if Belgrade cleans up on corruption and keeps improving day-to-day relations with Kosovo. But the final step, EU entry, a few years down the line, will depend on more difficult issues - the status of Kosovo and the status of Kosovar Serbs in north Kosovo.
Asked on Thursday in Brussels if Serbia will have to recognise Kosovo to get into the EU, Swedish Prime Minster Fredrik Reinfeldt said: "The Kosovo issue will be at the heart of these discussions."
Peter Feith, the top envoy in Pristina of Kosovo-recognising countries, in an interview with EUobserver late last year said Serbia's support for the Serb enclave in Kosovo is also a big problem: "We cannot tolerate a new candidate for membership of the EU that is bringing in a frozen conflict."
For his part, Serb President Boris Tadic - set to clash with nationalist hardliners in elections in April - underlined the economic benefits of EU integration. "We have to take care of our citizens, their standard of living ... We are moving toward the EU for the future of our children," he said on Thursday in a statement on his website.
Romania had earlier said Serbia should be held back because it is mistreating its so-called "Vlach" Romanian minority group.
But diplomats from other member states saw it as a gambit to get the Netherlands - an important architect of Western Balkan integration - to drop its veto on letting Romania join the EU's passport-free Schengen zone.
Some EU countries sympathise with Romania on the subject because it has fulfilled technical criteria for Schengen entry.
"I don't think you should move the goalposts in the process," Danish leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt told press at the summit.
EU Council chairman Herman Van Rompuy, after chairing a special Dutch-Romanian meeting on Thursday, said there is "strong political will" to make a "positive decision" on Schengen in September.
But in the end Romanian President Traian Basescu backed down without any real concessions.
Dutch leader Mark Rutte said he will only lift the veto if the European Commission in July says Bulgaria and Romania have done enough to fight corruption. "We need two [commission] reports that point in the right direction," he noted.
An EU official told this website: "It's hard for one country from Central and Eastern Europe to stand up alone to one of the large, old member states."