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Lithuania becomes final EU state to ratify Serbia deal


Lithuania on Tuesday became the final European Union member to ratify a trade and aid accord with Serbia, a move that could help Belgrade's bid to join the bloc.

Lawmakers in the Baltic state, which takes over the rotating six-month EU presidency on July 1, approved the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, considered a first official step towards EU membership.

"Lithuania's parliament demonstrated good will and support towards Serbia's euro integration path," Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told AFP after 73 lawmakers voted in favour and four abstained.

The vote came a week before an EU summit in which the 27 leaders -- to be joined on July 1 by new member Croatia -- are due to decide whether to begin membership talks with Serbia.

Linkevicius said it was important -- though not legally necessary -- for the agreement to come into force before the talks, and for that to happen all members must ratify it.

In recent years, Vilnius has delayed ratification and repeatedly criticised Serbia over its treatment of Lithuanian investors, saying it raises concerns regarding its rule of law.

But Linkevicius said Lithuania was now ready to support Serbia's aspirations during its EU presidency, adding that closer ties with the western Balkan countries are crucial for the entire EU.

The bloc has repeatedly urged Serbia to normalise ties with Kosovo, setting it as a key condition to move closer to EU membership. Relations between the two sides have remained strained since Pristina proclaimed independence in 2008, a move rejected by Belgrade.