European Union leaders have pushed back a decision on whether to grant Serbia formal EU candidate status until February or March next year.
The news -- decided at an EU summit on December 9 -- will come as a blow to Belgrade which had hoped to be awarded candidate status at the current meeting.
The 27 heads of governments said in a statement that Serbia has "made considerable progress" in fulfilling the political criteria and that "a fully satisfactory level in its [Serbia's] cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was reached."
But the text adds that Belgrade must show readiness to implement deals it has made in the EU-sponsored dialogue with Kosovo in order to get the candidate status next year.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy stated that the EU was happy with the results shown by Serbia but added that Brussels would continue to monitor the situation:
"We will continue to assess the situation and Serbia's commitment to shared objectives with the clear aim to grant Serbia the status of candidate country," Van Rompuy said.
The summit statement mentions the need to cooperate over the two states' common border and to work more closely with the EU's police force, EULEX, and the NATO soldiers belonging to the KFOR mission:
"With a view to granting Serbia the status of Candidate country by March 2012," the text says, "the European Council tasks the Council to examine and confirm that Serbia has continued to show credible commitment and achieved further progress in moving forward with the implementation in good faith of agreements reached in the dialogue including on IBM (Integrated Border Management), has reached an agreement on inclusive regional cooperation and has actively cooperated to enable EULEX and KFOR to execute their mandates."
The text also states that the "Council will take a decision in February 2012 on granting Serbia candidate status, to be confirmed by the March European Council."
The Rift Over Kosovo
Many member states, including France, have been pushing hard for Serbia to get candidate status immediately, pointing to the result achieved last week when Belgrade and Pristina agreed on how to manage their joint border after three days of marathon talks brokered by the EU. The deal envisaged that the parties gradually will set up the joint posts at all their common crossing points as soon as practically possible. The EU will also be present on the ground through EULEX.
The breakthrough followed weeks of sometimes violent confrontation as ethnic Serb residents of northern Kosovo defended barricades erected to challenge Kosovar and international operations near the border.
This week, some of the makeshift roadblocks were dismantled. But that was still not enough to sway some countries that remain skeptical of Serbia's willingness to make real progress over Kosovo, notably Germany.
Berlin has long been reluctant to give Belgrade the green light, a stance that was highlighted last week when German Chancellor Angela Merkel questioned Serbia's claims that it had no control over the Kosovar Serbs manning those barricades.
Dozens of NATO soldiers, including German nationals, have been injured in attempts to dismantle the obstacles.
Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom are also believed to have backed Germany in postponing the decision to the spring ahead of Serbian parliamentary elections in May.
Some diplomats have argued that such a move would give Serbian President Boris Tadic, who has staked his political career on close EU integration, a timely boost at the ballot box.
Tadic, for his part, reacted to the latest European Union statement by saying that Serbia "will never abandon" the EU path.
Nonetheless, Tadic said Belgrade would not change its position on Kosovo, which is recognized as an independent state by most EU nations but is still seen as a province by Serbia.
As regards Serbia's neighbor Montenegro, Van Rompuy said the EU would open accession negotiations with Podgorica in June 2012. The summit statement praises the country's "good progress" and notes that it has "achieved overall satisfactory results."
The small Western Balkan state, which received candidate status a year ago, will however be pushed to make further reforms in the field of rule of law and fundamental rights, especially when it comes to fighting corruption and organized crime.
The text added that the EU Commission should produce a report on the country's progress in these areas during the first half of next year which will form the basis of the final decision.
In a separate evet, Croatia signed its EU accession treaty, after being granted candidate status in 2004 and concluding its accession negotiations earlier this year. Croatia is expected to become the EU's 28th member in June 2013, after member states ratify the treaty.
At the signing ceremony in Brussels alongside Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor and President Ivo Josipovic, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso described the treaty as a "crowning success."
"I would like to pay tribute to [Croatia's] leaders who have accomplished this, but in particular to the Croatian people who remained such committed Europeans during the often difficult years of transition," Barroso added.