Serbia could become a candidate for European Union membership in 2009 if it proves that it is doing its best to catch war-crimes suspects, the EU's executive said Wednesday.
"Under the best possible scenario, Serbia may still be able to obtain candidate status in 2009," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said as he presented the European Commission's annual reports on the countries which are hoping to join the bloc, reported dpa.
However, the Balkans' largest state "needs to follow by positive developments through full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and making tangible progress in priority reform areas related to the rule of law and economic reform" to gain that status, the report stressed.
ICTY Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz is set to report to the UN Security Council on Serbia's cooperation with his organization in December. The EU is eagerly awaiting his report, Rehn said.
Relations between Belgrade and the EU have been embittered since the beginning of the year by the decision of most EU member states to recognize the independence of the Serbian province of Kosovo, which declared independence in February.
However, since February the EU has offered Serbia a series of political and economic deals in a bid to strengthen pro-Western politicians in presidential and parliamentary elections.
Following the elections, in which the pro-Western forces scored victory, the Serbian government in July arrested former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, who is wanted by ICTY prosecutors for his alleged role in war crimes in the 1990s Balkan wars.
That arrest was "a major step forward, but this process needs to be completed," the commission paper said.
A number of EU member states, led by the Netherlands, insist that Serbia should not be allowed to move closer to the EU until Karadzic's military commander, Ratko Mladic, is also arrested and handed over to ICTY in The Hague.
Serbia's decision to oppose Kosovo's independence only by diplomatic and legal means has also won grudging respect in Brussels.
"Serbia has vowed to use only peaceful means and has exercised restraint in its response to the declaration of independence by the Kosovo assembly," the report noted.