As Romanian President Traian Băsescu arrived at the summit, it was already clear that he had dropped his opposition to Serbia's EU candidate status.
The coveted status is a breakthrough for Serbia and opens the doors for accession negotiations, which may lead to full membership in the next five or six years.
"Green light for Serbia", Băsescu said, pressed by journalists at the Council doorstep.
The road has been a rocky one, however. During a dramatic meeting at the ministerial level on 28 February, Romania took its EU partners by surprise when it announced it had concerns over the rights of ethnic Romanians living in Serbia. Some members of the 40,000-strong ethnic Vlach community also consider themselves Romanian, while other Vlachs think of themselves as Serbian.
The move raised eyebrows among EU ministers, while in Serbia anti-Romanian sentiments started spreading like a forest fire.
This led to frantic behind-the-scenes talks ahead of the EU summit. In what appeared like a face-saving effort, Bucharest and Belgrade signed a bilateral agreement at the ambassadorial level yesterday morning, providing for the better protection for the Romanian minority in Serbia.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, just re-elected for a second two-and-a-half-year term, voiced his satisfaction at a late-night news conference.
"This is a remarkable achievement, a result of the efforts demonstrated by both sides in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina," Van Rompuy said. "I hope it will encourage Serbia to take further efforts in order to meet the political and economic criteria for the EU membership. It is also my hope that Belgrade will continue to support regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations in the Western Balkans".
Link or no link?
Then immediately Van Rompuy started describing the efforts to solve the stalemate over the bid of Romania and Bulgaria to join the Schengen border-free area. The issue was on the summit agenda, following successive failures of the Hungarian and Polish EU presidencies to resolve the case.
The Netherlands has opposed the two countries' membership bid as it considers them unprepared to enter Schengen, citing Commission progress reports on judicial reform and the fight against corruption.
Van Rompuy said: "After intensive preparatory consultations in the last weeks, we now have a roadmap. We ask the Justice and Home Affairs Council to adopt in September its decision, and in the meantime, to identify and implement measures aimed at contributing to the success of the process. I would like to thank the Romanian president, the Bulgarian prime minister and the Dutch prime minister for their constructive attitude during the final negotiations this afternoon under my chairmanship."
Romanian President Băsescu, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte met in Van Rompuy's office just before the start of the summit. The agreement reached, which is expected to be part of the summit's conclusions, provides for a conditional accession to Schengen later in the year.
Asked if Romania had "bullied" its way into Schengen by threatening to veto Serbia's bid, Van Rompuy appeared unconvincing in denying that the two issues had been linked at any moment.
"The measures are aimed to reassure those who have some fears that this accession will cause problems. I have the feeling now there is s strong political will to finalise the work in September," Van Rompuy said.
Bulgaria keeps cool
Unlike Romania, Bulgaria has kept cool on the Schengen stalemate.
Bulgaria too has a national minority in Serbia, and its situation has also been a cause of concern. Asked to comment on how his government was hoping to address the problem, Borissov said earlier yesterday that his country has always supported Serbia's candidacy, and that he addresses the problems of the Bulgarian minority each time he meets with Serbian Prime Minister Boris Tadić.
Asked to comment on the Dutch veto of Bulgaria's Schengen bid, Borissov said that for him the case was "closed" by the fact that his country had fulfilled all Schengen requirements and spent considerable amounts for that purpose. He said Bulgaria's border with Turkey - also and EU candidate - was already guarded according to Schengen standards.
European Commission sources told EurActiv that they had been under considerable pressure from all sides over the Schengen stalemate. The most intriguing revelation appears to be that in December, Rutte had pressed Commission President José Manuel Barroso to formally link the monitoring of Bulgaria and Romania under the Cooperation and Verification mechanism (see background) to the two countries'Schengen accession. The request was bluntly rejected by Barroso, the source said.