BELGRADE (Reuters) -- Serbia will apply for European Union membership by mid-2009, even if its preaccession pact with the bloc does not kick off, Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic has said.
His six-month old cabinet declared Serbia's EU membership a top priority, but any progress hangs on the arrest of war crimes suspects.
"We plan to submit the application for European Union membership in the first half of 2009," Cvetkovic said.
Last April, Serbia signed an Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU, a first step toward membership.
But the Netherlands has blocked the implementation of the SAA or some trade benefits proposed by some EU member states, before Belgrade arrests and hands over former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
But Cvetkovic said Serbia would apply even if the bloc fails to unfreeze the interim trade agreement.
"However, I am an optimist and I believe that the implementation of the interim agreement will begin before we submit the bid," Cvetkovic said.
In an interview with Reuters earlier this month, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rhen urged Balkan countries not to rush, but rather step up necessary reforms.
He also said the time was right for the EU to unfreeze trade benefits for Serbia.
To prove its commitment to the membership goal, Serbia will unilaterally start implementing the trade agreement, cutting import duties on goods coming from EU member states.
"We hope to see the implementation in the second half of January, after parliament passes a set of laws," Cvetkovic said. The government had originally planned to start cutting import duties as of January 1.
Serbia's neighbor Montenegro applied for EU membership two weeks ago and other Balkan states are expected to follow.
The Czech Republic, which takes over the rotating EU Presidency in January, has pledged to speed up the integration of the western Balkans, a region still recovering from wars and political turmoil in the 1990s.