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BRUSSELS - Romania caused confusion and annoyance with last-minute demands at an EU meeting on Serbia in Brussels on Tuesday (28 February).
Member states in the end endorsed giving Serbia EU candidate status, but not before extensive discussions with Romania, which threatened until the last minute to block the decision on grounds that Serbia is mistreating a Romanian minority group in the country.
The European Commission also drafted a special declaration to keep Bucharest happy. "The commission is of the view that, while the legal and institutional framework for respecting and protecting minorities is in place in Serbia, implementation needs to continue to be further improved. It will continue to closely monitor Serbia's efforts in this regard," it said.
Romania had earlier flagged up the minority issue at a meeting of foreign ministers in the EU capital on Monday.
But the doggedness of its resistance on Tuesday took colleagues by surprise, given that it had never made a big deal of it before and that the commission, in its series of extensive annual reports on Serbia, had never identified it as a serious problem.
The prevailing theory is that Romania wanted to show the Dutch how strongly it feels about the EU's passport-free Schengen zone.
Romania had hoped to join Schengen last year after fulfilling technical criteria. But the Netherlands blocked it on grounds it is too corrupt, causing national embarrassment. For its part, the Netherlands has invested a lot in Serbia's EU bid, helping to make sure in 2011 that it handed over its top war crimes fugitives to the international court in The Hague.
The decision on Romania's Schengen entry is now due in July.
The Dutch delegation said Romania did not make any kind of Schengen-Serbia link. The Danish EU minister, Nicolai Wammen, who chaired Tuesday's event also said: "The issue of Schengen was not raised."
But other diplomats and officials in and around the event said the Schengen fiasco was in the air.
One EU diplomat told this website: "It was about the Netherlands and the Schengen bid. The Romanians did not say anything like that today publicly, but there were one or two little comments about it at the Fac [the foreign ministers' meeting on Monday]. It's definitely part of the reason."
An EU official said: "A lot of time was devoted to this today and we were supposed to be preparing for the EU summit on Thursday, which has some serious business on the agenda about the financial crisis."
He added that EU presidents and prime ministers at the summit are now set to rubber stamp Serbia's candidate status. But he did not rule out that Romania's leader, or someone else, might come up with more last-minute objections. "After all, this is the EU," he said.
For his part, the Romanian minister responsible for the fuss on Tuesday cancelled his scheduled press briefing and flew back home citing agenda pressures.