By Daniel Dombey in Brussels and Eric Jansson in Belgrade
The European Commission yesterday gave the green light to closer ties with Serbia, despite disappointment that Belgrade has not done more to co-operate with a war crimes tribunal.
The talks on a "stabilisation and association" agreement - a way-station to EU membership - are now likely to begin this year. The deal could then take another 12 months to close.
The Brussels-based executive deemed that Serbia had done just enough to start talks on formal ties, particularly because 2005 is set to be a sensitive year for the former Yugoslav republic and its province of Kosovo.
Olli Rehn, the EU commissioner responsible for enlargement, said the decision demonstrated to "the people of Serbia and Montenegro that meeting critical international obligations is bringing the country closer to the European Union".
Brussels' positive verdict was prompted by a recent increase in the number of people indicted as war criminals sent to the International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
Surrenders last week by Sreten Lukic, a retired general, and Vujadin Popovic, a Bosnian Serb officer linked to the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, bring to 13 the number of Serb and Bosnian Serb indictees who have turned themselves in this year.
But Nebojsa Pavkovic, a former Yugoslav chief of staff whom the EU had hoped to see in the court by now, has yet to be handed over. The two most wanted indictees, Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, also remain free.
However, the Commission is aware that Kosovo is likely to be on the path to independence by the end of the year - and felt a need to give Belgrade a stake in closer relations with the EU at such a sensitive time.
Kosovo, whose population is largely Albanian, was at the centre of a 1999 war between Nato and Belgrade and is home to a Serb minority as well as to some of the holiest sites in the Serb Orthodox church.
Mr Rehn rejected accusations that the EU was exercising double standards by beginning talks with Serbia when it has put membership negotiations with Croatia on hold be