BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union on Tuesday provisionally agreed to open membership talks with Serbia by January at the latest, acknowledging Belgrade's efforts to improve relations with breakaway Kosovo and push through overall reforms.
Ireland's Deputy Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore said that the unanimous recommendation would be put to a summit of government leaders on Friday where it is overwhelmingly expected to be endorsed.
The EU ministers meeting in Luxembourg also proposed negotiations for closer ties with Kosovo, a possible step on the way of membership talks. Serbia hopes that the talks will pave the way for foreign investment and unblock access to the bloc's pre-entry funds.
Serbia's neighbor Croatia will join the EU on July 1 as the bloc's 28th member.
A vital breakthrough came April 19, when Serbia and Kosovo reached a historic agreement to normalize relations between the Balkan rivals and end years of acrimony.
"Both countries worked very hard in recent months on the normalization of their relations," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. "We welcome this and it deserves a positive European response," he said.
Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, declared independence in 2008. Over the years, Belgrade has said it would never recognize the sovereignty of Kosovo, which is considered by Serbia's nationalists to be the cradle of the country's medieval statehood and religion.
Kosovo has been recognized by more than 90 countries including the U.S. and 22 of the EU's 27 members.
Membership negotiations can take years, since any new EU nation has to bring reams of legislation into line with EU standards, from farm policy to human rights and legal issues.
Serbia has already made several reforms to clear the way for the start of negotiations.
After starting out as a largely western European group, the EU has steadily expanded east and into the Balkans to bring in several nations that were once dominated by communist regimes.