Serbia took a step forward Monday in its bid to join the European Union, as the bloc launched membership negotiations with Belgrade in the key areas of justice and fundamental rights.
The prospect of EU membership has been offered as an incentive for democratic and economic reforms in neighbouring countries, although disillusionment within the 28-member bloc is high, with one country - Britain - on track to leave the club.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said EU membership remained an attractive goal, offering the prospect of better living standards, while falling into line with the bloc on issues such as the rule of law would offer more certainty for investors.
Negotiations began Monday on two of the EU's 35 accession chapters - Chapter 23 on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and Chapter 24 on justice, freedom and security. Each chapter covers an area in which membership hopefuls must align themselves with EU standards.
"We are opening two important and demanding chapters in the accession process. These chapters are tied to basic values and principles of the EU," said Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
The country must now carry out "substantial" reforms in areas such as migration, asylum, visa policy, external border management, judicial and police cooperation and the fight against corruption, terrorism and organized crime, the EU said in a statement.
"This will take time and will not always be easy," warned EU Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn.
The first two chapters were opened for Serbia in December, rewarding Belgrade for improving relations with its former breakaway province of Kosovo.