EU countries push back date for Serbia talks
EU countries have agreed to open accession talks with Serbia, but the first meeting is to be later than initially proposed and might be subject to further review.
The decision, by foreign and EU affairs ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday (25 June), is to be rubber stamped by EU leaders in Brussels on Friday.
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It says the ministers recommend the first intergovernmental conference (IGC), launching the process, is to take place "at the very latest" in January 2014.
Earlier drafts of the text had spoken of an IGC no later than December this year, but the date was pushed back at the request of Germany, which requires a mandate from the Bundestag and which is traditionally cautious on enlargement.
Tuesday's decision also says: "The European Council [EU leaders] will … be invited to decide if it wishes to confirm the EU negotiating framework to be adopted."
The phrase leaves it open for Friday's summit to say whether EU ministers will in future fix the precise date of the IGC, or whether EU leaders will make the final call.
The latter option is tougher on Serbia, because EU leaders' meetings take place less frequently and are more political in nature, creating more scope for last-minute objections if Serbia reneges on reforms.
EU ministers on Tuesday also agreed to launch talks on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Kosovo.
Five EU countries still do not recognise the new entity, but the SAA talks would mark its first legal step toward EU entry despite the legal conundrums this creates.
Enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele on Tuesday said it is "a good day" for Belgrade and Pristina.
He also said the decision enhances the "credibility" of the EU's enlargement process.
With Croatia set to join the Union on 1 July in any case, he noted: "If partners deliver on their homework, the member states deliver on moving that partner to the next stage in the accession process."
EU ministers and Fuele both praised EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton for helping to make progress possible.
Ashton in April brokered a deal between Kosovar ad Serb leaders on how to end the frozen conflict over the ethnic Serb enclave in Kosovo.
She noted in a press briefing on Monday that around 50 officials from both sides are currently in her building in the EU capital working out details of implementation.
She added that Serbia has already taken "irreversible" steps, such as closing down some of its security operations in north Kosovo.
Fuele said the fine print on whether EU leaders or ministers will decide on the final Serbia date is unimportant.
"There are no new conditions … It is not a two stage process," he said.
He also underlined that January 2014 is only the "latest" date, with every possibility the Serbia IGC could still take place this year.
But for his part, German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle indicated that the minor delay and the details on the decision-making process are significant. "This would give the opportunity to observe which steps in the implementation are really made," he told press in Luxembourg.