Leading article: Lessons from Belgrade

Cars on fire, shops trashed, tear gas in the streets and dozens injured. Such were the unedifying scenes yesterday in Belgrade when Serbia's beleaguered gay and lesbian community took to the streets to stage the first Gay Pride parade in almost a decade.

That the thousand or so participants survived the march unscathed was almost a miracle. The last Gay Pride in Serbia in 2001 ended in carnage. Police stood by and let the self-styled defenders of "family values" lay into the marchers and beat many of them to a pulp.

The reasons why the government took a firmer stance against the nationalist thugs this year were illuminating. Serbia is more desperate now to join the European Union than it was in 2001 – and is expecting the release of a European Commission report on its candidacy in which the issue of respect for minority rights will feature.

Meanwhile, several senior diplomats in Belgrade from European Union states had stated in advance that if a Gay Pride march took place in Belgrade this year, they intended to go on it. Appalled by the prospect of important foreigners coming face to face with Serbia's men of violence, the authorities announced that they would deploy thousands of police if necessary to make sure the march could take place.

The lesson from all this is clear. When Europe chooses to deploy that combination of diplomatic and financial levers known as "soft power", it can change the way that the governments of would-be member countries treat often highly unpopular minorities.

What Europe needs to do now is apply those same levers with regards to other minority communities in the region, starting with the Roma and the mentally and physically handicapped. Despite their obvious differences, what these groups have in common is that they are either actively persecuted, or are at least shunned and marginalised, by societies that place a high premium on conformity to rigidly defined norms.

Europe failed all three of these groups when, for political reasons, it allowed the admission of Romania and Bulgaria into the club in 2005 – a decision that almost everyone in Brussels now recognises was premature.

As the candidacies of other Balkan states come up for consideration in the next few years, Brussels must not make the same mistake of assuming that the offer of entry into the club of itself will improve the position of minorities in those countries. As the Belgrade march showed, it is only when Europe is vigilant that official attitudes even start to shift in the right direction.