Luxembourg: Serbia took a crucial step forward in its bid to join the European Union on Monday when EU foreign ministers agreed to examine Belgrade`s candidacy, in reward for softening its stance on Kosovo.
The deal calls on the European Commission to offer its opinion on Belgrade`s bid to join the bloc -- a first step in a country gaining formal status as an EU candidate.
The commission is expected to issue its opinion in the second half of 2011, a diplomatic source said.
Monday`s agreement maintains pressure, however, on Belgrade to arrest war criminals Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, wanted by the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
The Dutch government, host to the ICTY trying suspected war crimes, had insisted any EU accord on Serbian membership include a call for Belgrade to round up fugitives still on the run.
"This is a very important step for Serbia," said Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere, who hosted the meeting.
"It came after effective progress in regional policy and a commitment from the Belgrade government to engage in dialogue with Pristina."
Belgrade, unlike most EU countries and the United States, does not recognise Kosovo`s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008, but last month agreed to start an EU-brokered dialogue with Pristina.
That breakthrough was deemed vital to reducing tensions in the Balkans and most EU nations subsequently came out in favour of ushering Serbia into the bloc for reaching out to Kosovo.
But Monday`s agreement contains tough conditions on the later stages of accession demanded by The Hague, keen to see Belgrade increase efforts to bring in war crimes suspects.
Mladic, now 68, is facing genocide charges at the ICTY for his role in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. Hadzic was the Serbian political leader in Croatia during the Serbo-Croatian conflict from 1991 to 1995.
While calling for further progress in dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, the accord also demands a greater measure of cooperation with the ICTY.
"The most convincing proof" of increased Serbian cooperation with the court would be "the key matter of the arrest of the two remaining fugitives," Mladic and Hadzic, it says.
The agreement also states that further steps to Serbia`s accession will be taken when EU leaders unanimously decide "that full cooperation with the ICTY exists."