BRUSSELS -- The European Commission has recommended that Serbia become an official EU candidate country and that member states set a date for opening accession talks with Montenegro.
The recommendations came on October 12 in the commission's annual progress report
on the nine countries hoping to join the European Union.
Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele told the European Parliament that the opening of formal accession talks with Serbia would depend on Belgrade improving its relationship with Kosovo.
He said accession negotiations would be opened "as soon as Serbia achieves further progress" in normalization of relations with Kosovo.
"What is important in that process -- and we made that point again and again -- is that the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo is normalized," Fuele said.
"We made it absolutely clear that the European Union is not ready to import any problems, which means that process of normalization needs to be achieved within the period of accession negotiations."
In Belgrade, President Boris Tadic said he was "proud" of the success and said Serbia hoped to resolve problems with Kosovo over customs controls and border crossings.
Belgrade has taken part in EU-sponsored talks with Pristina on solving technical issues between the two countries, such as telecom and visas.
But there have been flashpoints in recent weeks such as violent clashes along the border. Serbia walked out of the most recent talks in Brussels two weeks ago, but is likely to return to the negotiating table.
Tadic said Serbia was determined to resume the dialogue.
However, Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said Serbia's policy toward Kosovo "will not change as a result of the European Commission's opinion."
He added, "We are committed to our European path as well as to find a compromise solution for Kosovo, therefore we are committed to dialogue. These are two different processes and the first one could not influence another, as far as we are concerned."
Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic hailed the report and recommendations. "Serbia remains committed to European integrations and will continue to work in that direction," he told reporters.
Fuele said Belgrade's cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague had been a factor in the commission's decision.
That is a reference to the arrests earlier this year of Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, the last two individuals wanted by war crimes tribunal.
Montenegro Set To Follow Croatia Into EU
Serbia's candidate status is expected to be endorsed by the heads of government of the EU's 27 member states during a summit in December.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele
The recommendation for opening talks with Montenegro means the tiny candidate country looks set to be the next former Yugoslav republic to follow Croatia into the EU.
"Montenegro has worked hard," said Fuele. "We have seen real progress including in judicial reform, revising the electoral law, media freedom, antidiscrimination, and the fight against corruption and organized crime."
Of the nine countries covered in the report, Croatia is due to join the EU in mid-2013 and Iceland around the same time, provided that its population endorses EU membership in a referendum.
Kosovo Membership Still A Long Way Off
But several technical and political hurdles remain for the other seven before they can be properly considered for membership.
Kosovo's EU membership prospects remain distant and five of the EU member states -- Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain -- still see it as a Serbian province rather than an independent state.
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was granted candidate status in 2005 but its bid has become mired in long-running name dispute with EU member Greece.
Athens has long argued that "Macedonia" implies a territorial claim on the northern Greek province with the same name and bilateral talks to solve the issue remain bogged down.
The report registers scant progress for Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which both remain potential candidate countries, and Turkey.
Mutual Frustrations In Turkey-EU Negotiations
Turkey is an official candidate country and has closed one of the 33 accession negotiation chapters needed to join the EU. But 17 of the chapters are frozen and enlargement talks between Brussels and Ankara are more or less suspended.
The report said talks should continue but Fuele noted that exasperation at the lack of progress was mutual.
"Turkey, with its dynamic economy and its important regional role continues to be a key country for the European Union," he said. "I am convinced that the accession process remains the most effective tool to frame out relations with Turkey."
"Regrettably, accession negotiations have not moved forward for more than one year.
"There are frustrations about this on both sides. But these should not blind us from the importance of our relationship or the underlining fundamentals which remain good."
Talks on a possible settlement between Cyprus's Greeks and Turks have stalled and the report is critical of Turkish media freedom and judicial independence.
These problems are likely to keep Turkey at arm's length from the EU for the foreseeable future -- a scenario that pleases both Berlin and Paris.