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Serbia Granted 'Candidate Status' Prior To EU Entry

European leaders agreed at a summit held in Brussels on Thursday to grant Serbia "candidate status" prior to its joining the currently 27-member European Union, a week after EU Foreign Ministers recommended accepting Serbia's membership candidacy.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Serbia's continued desire to join the European Union "shows that the EU remains very attractive ... [because it and other countries] want to join this project of freedom, responsibility and solidarity."

Meanwhile, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy hailed the development as a "remarkable achievement," stressing that it was brought about by improved dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo.

The EU Foreign Ministers had recommended granting membership candidacy to Serbia last week after Belgrade signed two EU-brokered cooperation agreements with Kosovo, which Belgrade still considers as a breakaway province. But that recommendation was subject to approval at the European Council summit.

Last week, the two former Yugoslavian republics had reached agreements on regional representation and cooperation, and concluded a technical protocol on the implementation of a previous border agreement.

Kosovo will now be able to participate and sign new agreements on its own account - rather than under the tutelage of the U.N. mission in Pristina - and to speak for itself at all regional meetings.

Until now agreements have been signed by UNMIK on behalf of Kosovo. Kosovo's representation in international meetings posed similar sovereignty and recognition problems, because of Belgrade's refusal to recognize the independence of the breakaway territory.

Ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February, 2008. Although Russia and Serbia opposed the move, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in July, 2010 ruled in Kosovo's favor, indicating that the move "did not violate general international law."

Serbia has steadfastly refused to grant recognition to Kosovo since it broke away in 2008. Belgrade, however, agreed to EU-mediated talks on areas including regional cooperation, airspace and telecoms which are crucial to Kosovo's existence as an independent nation.

Serbia, which launched the process of joining the EU in December 2009, was hoping to become a membership candidate in the first half of 2012. A sterner stand against Kosovo could hurt Belgrade's prospects of joining the EU as the European bloc wants Belgrade to resolve its differences with the breakaway province.

Despite the recent Serbia-Kosovo agreements, Romania had earlier blocked Belgrade's candidacy status over a row linked to the rights of some 30,000 Romanian-speaking Vlachs in Serbia. Romania later withdrew its objections after reaching a deal with Serbia on the issue, but had cautioned that it would block Serbia's next steps toward EU membership unless it received further assurances from Belgrade.

Serbia had earlier overcome the other major obstacles it faced over its EU accession aspirations by arresting three war crimes suspects -- Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic -- and extraditing them to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to stand trials. The EU had set their arrests as a pre-condition for Serbia's entry into the European bloc.

Serbia's application for EU membership is widely seen as an effort to end years of international isolation brought about by the Balkan wars. The biggest of the former Yugoslav republics was the target of U.N. sanctions in the 1990s and a NATO bombing in 1999 to halt its fierce counter-insurgency war in Kosovo.

A NATO bombing in 1999 ended the two-year war between Serbia and ethnic Kosovo Albanians. Later, the U.N. Security Council enforced a NATO-monitored cease fire in Kosovo and adopted a resolution in 1999 to instal a U.N. administration there. But soon after Kosovo declared independence, the EU deployed a police, customs and judicial mission there to replace the U.N. mission.

by RTTNews Staff Writer

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