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Serbia Seen Applying For EU Membership Next Week

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic: "We will quickly make steps from the candidacy status to the full membership."
BELGRADE (Reuters) -- Serbia will apply next week to join the European Union, a decade after the end of the Balkans wars whose legacy has hindered its progress, a Serbian government official said today.

Serbia's "Council for EU Integration will soon recommend this to the government and we hope it [the government] will make the formal move early next week," the official said on condition of anonymity.

President Boris Tadic said the council and the government would decide about the move at a session on December 19, but warned that "there's no need to rush."

"We have good arguments both for and against the candidacy...our analysis about all circumstances related with EU accession is good," Tadic told state-run RTS TV from Copenhagen, where he was participating in the climate summit.

Serbia's path to the EU membership has been stalled due to its failure to arrest ex-Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, who is sought for genocide by the UN war crimes court.

A European diplomat said Belgrade's application was expected to be forwarded to Sweden, which holds the rotating presidency in the bloc, on December 22.

When asked in Brussels about Serbia's possible EU application, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, whose country will take over the EU Presidency for six months from January 1, told a news conference: "I guess they will apply quite soon."

Although the application is important symbolically, EU officials say Belgrade still has to overcome many difficult obstacles in the years to come before becoming a full member.

Today top officials in Belgrade expressed confidence the country will be ready to join the EU by 2014. "We will quickly make steps from the candidacy status to the full membership," Bozidar Djelic, deputy prime minister, told reporters.

Serbia has still to adopt many laws to get in line with European regulations, officials say.

The process was significantly delayed last year due to filibustering by nationalists in the parliament, but it picked up pace after changes in parliamentary guidelines.

In a change that gives high hopes to Serbians that they are moving toward the 27-nation bloc, as of midnight tonight they will be allowed to travel without a visa to most of the EU.

Earlier this month, the EU unblocked an interim trade deal that provides for the abolition of customs duties over six years and the reform of Serbia's law on competition and state subsidies.

But the crucial ratification of the EU's pre-membership Stabilization and Association Agreement remains on hold because the Netherlands wants to see Mladic, sought for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, first extradited to The Hague tribunal.

Dutch peacekeepers who served as part of the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia were deployed in and around Srebrenica in 1995, but did not have enough weapons or the mandate to prevent the killings.