EU favours Serbia membership talks
The European Commission on Monday recommended opening negotiations on Serbia's entry into the EU after Belgrade struck a deal to normalise ties with breakaway Kosovo, aiming to turn the page on the last simmering troublespot in the Balkans.
Serbia hopes to be given a date to kick off long-awaited EU accession talks at a summit in June after clinching the deal with its former province of Kosovo last week, the last major hurdle in its efforts to move closer to the 27-nation bloc.
Noting the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo in a report to be handed to EU ministers, the Commission said it "recommends that negotiations for accession to the European Union should be opened with Serbia".
It also recommended the launch of negotiations with Kosovo to sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement that would bring Pristina closer to the bloc, even though five EU nations still do not recognise it as an independent entity.
"Kosovo has taken very significant steps towards visible and sustainable improvement in relations with Serbia," the report said.
Slovenia is currently the lone member of the former Yugoslavia to have entered the bloc, although Croatia is set to become the 28th EU state in July.
The greenlight from Brussels came as Serbia's government approved the deal brokered by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to normalise ties with Kosovo 14 years after the end of hostilities.
"The rubicon has been passed," Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a key player in EU-Balkans relations, said in Luxembourg.
"I think it is a very big achievement," he said, adding however that "implementation will be extremely difficult".
The Serbian parliament is also expected to approve the deal later this week as the ruling coalition has a comfortable majority in the assembly.
In Pristina, Kosovo's parliament too rubber-stamped the 15-point accord aimed at settling the fate of some 40,000 ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo who refuse to recognise Pristina's authority.
But the deal has angered Kosovo Serbs in the north who have called a protest rally in the main northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica later on Monday.
Kosovo prime minister Hashim Thaci on Saturday called on Kosovo Serbs "not to fear the accord," pledging new opportunities for investment, development and employment.
The text of the accord has yet to be made public by the EU, but according to local media in Serbia and Kosovo, the Kosovo Serbs will have their own police and justice representatives, working under Pristina's authority, in the areas where they make up a majority of the population.
Almost 100 countries -- including the United States and 22 of the 27 EU countries -- have recognised Kosovo which unilaterally declared independence in 2008.
Friday's breakthrough deal, brokered after two years of efforts and many hiccups, was initialled by Thaci and Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic.
It won immediate praise from around the world.
"What we are seeing is a step away from the past and, for both of them, a step closer to Europe," said Ashton.
US Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed it and called on both sides to "implement expeditiously and fully all dialogue agreements."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he wanted to "congratulate and commend" both sides for their "steadfast determination" and hoped the deal would "bring about a brighter future and lasting stability to the region."
The two premiers met in Brussels on Friday with NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who said the alliance stood ready to help implement the accord.
NATO launched a bombing campaign against late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic's forces to end the 1989-1990 conflict in Kosovo, and then set up the KFOR force, now reduced to some 5,000 troops, to ensure security.