The European Union said Thursday that it would open the first two so-called chapters of accession talks with Serbia this month, rewarding the country for a series of accords with its former Kosovo province despite their patchy implementation.
One chapter will focus on relations with Kosovo, which broke away during a war in 1999 and declared independence in 2008. Serbia does not recognize its former southern province as sovereign, but has struck a series of deals brokered by the EU to try to regulate relations between the two.
Analysts and Western diplomats say implementation of the agreements has been piecemeal at best on both sides, but the EU is keen to keep Serbia anchored in the process of Western integration to counter what diplomats say is growing Russian engagement in the Balkans.
"I am looking forward to the 14th [of December], when we can expect the chapters to be open for more detailed negotiations," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on the sidelines of a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Belgrade.
Accession talks will begin with chapters 35 and 32, on Kosovo and financial controls.
"We will be coming to Brussels with big expectations and the firm belief that Serbia belongs to Europe," Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said after meeting Mogherini.
Vucic was information minister at the tail end of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic's disastrous rule during the 1990s, when federal Yugoslavia collapsed in conflict and Serbia was bombed by NATO to halt its killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo during a counterinsurgency war.
Once a devoted ultranationalist, Vucic has rebranded himself as a pro-Western reformer, but critics and some Western diplomats remain worried about freedom of expression and the media in Serbia.
Serbia insists it will never recognize Kosovo, but it is likely to come under pressure to do more to settle relations the nearer it gets to EU membership, a process that will take years.
The EU itself remains divided on Kosovo sovereignty, recognized by 23 of the bloc's 28 members.