WELCOME: Serbian president Boris Tadić, left, and European Commission President Jose Barroso in Brussels on February 28.
The term "red lines" is much-used in the Balkans; frequently spoken in Athens and Skopje amid the Macedonia name dispute, for years it has been heard in Belgrade too, in reference to Kosovo.
But just as those in favour of Serbia being granted European Union candidate country status were making what they hoped would be the final encouraging noises needed to achieve this milestone, Serbia’s president Boris Tadić found himself again speaking of "red lines" – but for once, not about Kosovo, but about Romanian demands.
By February 28, there was confirmation that EU ministers meeting in Brussels had agreed to recommend Serbia for candidate country status. But Nicolai Wammen, European affairs minister for Denmark, current holder of the EU rotating presidency, conceded publicly that the talks among the foreign ministers had been "difficult and tough".
In sum, while most of the 27 ministers were in favour of the go-ahead for Serbia, Romania has underlined demands about the estimated 30 000-strong Vlach minority. Bucharest set as a trade-off for its consent that Vlachs in Serbia would declare themselves to be members of the Romanian minority. A complex issue, it is one on which Vlachs themselves are divided.
Hopes were, ahead of the March 1 and 2 meeting of the European Council, that in the same way agreement had been achieved among the EU ministers, the same could be done at the level of heads of government and state.
But Serbia has experienced disappointment at the European Council before, most recently in December when a decision on its candidate status was postponed because of conflict in northern Kosovo.
Serbian president Boris Tadić, speaking on February 28 to Radio Television Serbia, made it clear that he would not give in to what he called "blackmails".
"If we do not define red lines, no one will take us seriously," Tadić said, as quoted by Serbian news website B92. "If Serbia showed weakness and agreed to blackmails, there would be no end to them. It is important that we stick firmly to our principles."
Among the EU’s top office-bearers and those EU countries that have been very public about their backing for Serbia (not without tandem support for Kosovo), the messages were generally upbeat.
Stefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, said after the EU ministers meeting: "Today is a good day, not only for Serbia and Kosovo but for the enlargement process of the EU in general".
Füle hastened to express confidence that the European Council would endorse the agreement of the EU foreign ministers.
Also not missing a message that several at EU level and regional leaders such as Bulgaria want to underline, Füle said that candidate status would open a new era in EU-Serbia relations "and I expect that Serbia, as a candidate country, will be able to further progress on its reform agenda so as to prepare for the future opening of accession negotiations".
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov, in a statement on February 27, said that agreement by EU foreign ministers to grant candidate country status Serbia would be good for the entire region. He reaffirmed Bulgaria’s support for all its neighbours progressing towards the EU on the basis of all commitments in the political and legal criteria for membership, which included how the rights of citizens in the state were respected.
He said that Bulgaria would monitor the situation in Serbia closely, with an emphasis on minority issues and human rights.
European Commission President Jose Barroso, speaking on February 28 after talks with Tadić, said that it was "important that Serbia remains committed to an ambitious reform agenda and to its dialogue with Priština".
It was key breakthroughs in that dialogue between Belgrade and Priština, just a few days previously, that helped achieve the agreement among the EU foreign ministers.
"Only concrete steps and results will allow our relationship to develop further," Barroso said. "Serbia holds the key to deepen our ties and to its own progress".
Tadić emphasised that Serbia deserved to be given a date for the start of accession talks as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, Kosovo was not without its benefits from the meeting. Ministers agreed to the starting of a feasibility study into a stabilisation and association agreement with Kosovo. The EU has a track record of such agreements with countries seen as possibly, ultimately, headed for membership of the bloc. In the case of Kosovo, where five out of 27 EU states decline to recognise Kosovo’s independence and the official EU position is "status neutral", even the beginning of such a process is sure to generate further complications, and no doubt, some red lines too.