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Serbian Prime Minister: We will be next to join European Union

By Oliver Joy, CNN
October 3, 2013 -- Updated 1636 GMT (0036 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In 2012, the Serbian economy posted negative growth of 1.7%, according to Eurostat estimates
  • Serbian Prime Minister Dacic said: European Union accession is not financial aid package
  • Serbia's unemployment rate is at 25%, only Greece and Spain are higher in Europe

(CNN) -- As the European Union continues its expansion into Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Serbia's Prime Minister says he is "certain" his country will be the bloc's next member.

Ivica Dacic told CNN: "We would like Serbia to become a member of the European Union as quickly as possible."

Serbia is aiming to become the third country from former Yugoslavia to join Europe's political and economic union, following in the footsteps of Slovenia and neighbor Croatia, who joined earlier this year.

But Dacic believes Serbia does not have "a lot of time to wait" as its economy has suffered "great consequences" following the breakup of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Read more: Croatia looks to oil and gas fields in Adriatic Sea

"The rate of unemployment is the biggest problem," Dacic said, referring to Serbia's 25% unemployment rate, which sits below only Spain and Greece in the EU.

He added that "discussing economic reforms in Serbia is futile" until industrial productivity increases. Dacic also highlighted the importance of foreign investment to country's economic prospects.

Read more: Germany's modest Mutti Merkel is no Iron Lady Thatcher

"These foreign investments will not happen if Serbia is not a part of the modern world," Dacic said. Serbia's economy contracted 1.7% in 2012, according to Eurostat estimates, due to its close ties with embattled eurozone nations.

Serbia, which has a lower minimum wage than China, is also struggling to cope with an exodus of skilled workers, as the country's young leave in search of work abroad. The phenomenon has left the country heavily reliant on remittance income.

Read more: Croatia PM: We need Italy to recover

EU membership is a chance for Serbia to join the world's largest trading bloc and will offer access to funding for infrastructure projects and the country's poorer regions.

But Dacic said: "We don't see the European Union accession as a straightforward financial aid package, or that it would enable our citizens to work in other countries across Europe."

Will Croatia benefit from the EU?

Despite Serbia's ambitions, accession can be a slow process. Croatia only joined the EU as its 28th member in July after talks to join officially opened in 2005.

Mixed views on Croatia's entry into EU

Read more: Did Croatia get lucky on EU membership?

Croatia welcomes EU membership

Although the EU never gives specific time frames on accession, Dacic is confident Serbia will join Europe's exclusive club within the next 10 years.

Peter Stano, a spokesman for European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, told CNN that the speed of accession depends "solely" on Serbia.

He said: "Serbia has already met the political and economic criteria needed to become candidate status and to start the negotiations."

James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans expert and author of 'Kosovo: The Path to Contested Statehood in the Balkans' estimates that the process will take eight to ten years.

He told CNN: "It might well be the case that Montenegro, which has already started EU accession talks, is going to be the next one to join... getting Montenegro ready for membership is likely to be easier."

Serbia also faces questions over Kosovo, after it declared independence in 2008. Serbia does not recognize the declaration, and the European Union is trying to encourage talks between the two sides.

Dacic said: "We have always made it clear that we cannot and will not try to bring our problems to the EU with us. This is another reason why we are conducting this open dialogue in order to normalize the relationship and solve our problems before accession."

Kosovo was plunged into war in the late 1990s, pitting Kosovo Albanian insurgents against Serb security forces and Belgrade-backed Kosovo Serb paramilitaries.

William Bartlett, author of 'Europe's Troubled Region,' believes EU membership for Serbia will help ease some of the political tensions with Kosovo.

He said: "By reducing political tensions, you are reducing country risk for investors and that will have a positive knock on effect for the economy."

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