Serbia and Brussels on December 14 began talks in earnest on possible EU membership for Belgrade, opening the country’s first two accession stages in negotiations for it to join the bloc.
A December 14 conference opened two of the 35 so-called chapters in membership talks -- one related to Serbia's normalization with Kosovo, its former province that is recognized as an independent state by 111 countries, but not by Belgrade, and the other on financial control.
"This opening is a decisive step towards the EU," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency. He added that it would not have been possible without the "courageous decisions" taken by Belgrade.
Serbia was granted the status of a candidate for EU accession in 2012. The European Commission said in an assessment on EU candidate countries last month that Belgrade has made progress both politically and economically, but that it must "enhance credibility and predictability of the rule of law."
It also said it expects Serbia to remain committed to the normalization of relations with Kosovo and to implement agreements reached so far in the Brussels-sponsored talks between Belgrade and Pristina.
Kosovo declared independence almost a decade after NATO went to war in 1999 to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanian civilians by Serbian forces trying to crush an insurgency.
"This is an important and big day for us, one of those days when we are writing the pages of our history," Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said following talks in Brussels on December 14. "We do not have to dream dreams anymore about the EU. All we have to do is work hard."
Vucic has pledged to meet all of the EU membership requirements by 2019.
Asselborn warned, however, that relations between Belgrade and Pristina "remained very difficult."
"We are here to help," he said.
Kosovo signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU in October, establishing the first contractual relationship between Europe's newest country and the EU despite the fact the five member states still do not recognizes its independence.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo must continue and that "much water will have flowed down the Danube" before the two sides made peace.
Hahn also praised Belgrade for its role in Europe’s migration crisis. Serbia has served as a transit country to Northern and Western Europe for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict in Syria and elsewhere.
"This is a first proof that you can be...a full member of the EU. You have shown a spirit, a solidarity which I would have liked to see by some of our member states," Hahn said.
The European Commission noted in its assessment last month that Serbia needs improve its asylum system and boost its accommodation capacity for migrants.
Brussels also requires the bloc's prospective members to adhere to the EU's foreign policy.
Serbia has so far resisted imposing sanctions on Russia, its traditional ally and a key trading partner, over Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and the war between Kyiv’s forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Vucic said on December 14 that while Serbia's "strategic goal is our EU path...we would like to preserve the traditional friendship that we have with Russia."
With reporting by AFP and dpa