During a visit to Serbia, European Union enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn has urged the country to implement “difficult reforms” and to normalize ties with Kosovo in order to be able to join the bloc by 2025.
Hahn began a tour to Serbia and Montenegro with a stop in Belgrade on February 7, the day after the European Commission unveiled its new strategy to integrate the six Western Balkan countries that remain outside the EU.
The strategy is meant to give a clear view toward EU accession to Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.
Among the six countries, the commission considers Serbia and Montenegro as current front-runners toward accession and the new strategy says they could be allowed in by 2025 if they meet all the conditions.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Hahn said that the country’s “EU perspective is real and the country now has a unique opportunity to grasp it.”
“Reforms will be tough and the EU accession process is not an easy ride,” he said, adding that the European Commission will “always be here to support you.”
Vucic acknowledged that there was a “mountain chain of obstacles” on Serbia’s EU path and said it would be up to the Serbian citizens to choose the country’s path.
“[The government and the president] will come up with suggestions, but the decision is not on us. The decision is on the citizens. We won’t be able to [act] against the people’s will. Citizens will have to say how they see the future of our beautiful country,” he said.
Hahn said that a “strong political push” will be needed to deliver on "sometimes difficult reforms, in particular, on rule of law, justice, and fundamental rights.”
“We need to see fundamental changes in these areas across the Western Balkans,” the commissioner insisted.
He said Serbia also needs to “conclude and irreversibly implement a legally binding agreement with Kosovo before it can join” the EU, and thanked Vucic for “the internal dialogue he has launched on this vital issue.”
“The EU cannot and will not import bilateral disputes,” Hahn said.
Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, declared independence in 2008 -- nearly a decade after the 1998-99 Kosovo war. More than 110 countries recognize its independence. Serbia does not.
The EU-sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina has produced agreements in areas such as freedom of movement, justice, and the status of the Serbian minority in Kosovo -- as well as enabling Serbia to start EU accession talks and Brussels to sign an Association Agreement with Kosovo.
Addressing a UN Security Council meeting on the UN mission in Kosovo on February 7, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley urged both sides to move toward normalizing ties.
"The coming months are crucial. The stage is set. The benefits are clear,” Haley said. "All that is needed is the political will to come together to create a just and lasting peace between Kosovo and Serbia."
As she laid out the new strategy for the Western Balkans on February 6, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini insisted that 2025 was not a “target date" or a "deadline."
“It is a realistic perspective to conclude, complete the accession process for those that are currently negotiating, but also for others that might start negotiating in the near future,” she said.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that it was an "indicative date; an encouragement so that the parties concerned work hard to follow that path."
Hahn said in a message on Twitter that he also had a “very good and constructive” meeting with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic on February 7.
The European commissioner was set to meet with representatives of Serbia’s civil society, media, and opposition parties on February 8 before heading to Montenegro on February 9.