Serbia rushes to launch accession talks

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The EU moved closer to starting accession talks with Serbia yesterday (25 October) after overcoming long-standing opposition from the Dutch government. Belgrade said a "new era" in its history had begun. BETA, EURACTIV's partner in Serbia, contributed to this article.

Meeting in Luxembourg, EU foreign ministers found a formula to unblock the launch of accession talks with Serbia. The diplomatic jargon adopted accommodates the Netherlands' demand that any further step in Serbia's EU accession must be conditional on Belgrade's cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

The move became possible after Belgrade agreed to engage in talks with Kosovo, its former province, whose declaration of independence in 2008 Serbia does not recognise.

Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said he was satisfied that the compromise text had put "pressure" on Serbia to fully cooperate with the ICTY.

Steven Vanackere, Belgium's foreign minister, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, praised the "good balance" of the text.

In fact, Belgium made a huge contribution to successfully reaching the compromise. It had to step aside from its own national position as its duty at the EU’s helm is to seek a common position. Jean de Ruyt, Belgium's EU ambassador, told EURACTIV that his country's stance on the need for full cooperation with ICTY mirrored the Dutch view.

In Belgrade, the head of the EU delegation to Serbia, Vincent Degert, said it would be "realistic" for the country to start accession talks in a year's time.

Apparently Serbia, the 'core country' of the former Yugoslavia, is in a race to secure speedy accession talks for various reasons. One of them, according diplomatic sources, is that Belgrade wants to wrap up its membership talks before Croatia's EU accession, which could realistically happen in 2013.

Another reason is that Serbia would not like to be overtaken by Montenegro, a small Adriatic country which seceded from Serbia and Montenegro in 2006. Montenegro expects to gain candidate status in November and to launch accession talks in 2011.

Although Montenegro may appear to be a candidate less burdened by issues related to the region's violent recent past, Serbia's administrative capacity is acknowledged as significant in comparison with its small neighbour.

"Peer pressure" and internal competition among candidates are factors seen positively by Brussels. Another factor which could help countries from the former Yugoslavia advance faster toward EU accession is their common lingua franca, called 'Serbo-Croat' in the recent past. Croatia has already translated most of the EU acquis and it has made the texts available to other EU hopefuls.  

However, setbacks remain possible. Recently, officials in EU countries have considered removing visa-free travel for Serbia and Macedonia as growing numbers of asylum seekers from those countries hit the borders of Sweden, Belgium and Germany.

The European Union's commitment to international justice will be measured by its willingness to pressure Serbia in the months to come to arrest the two remaining war crimes suspects, Human Rights Watch stated in a press release.

Using the conditionality of the country's cooperation with the ICTY, the EU should use all upcoming opportunities to press Serbia to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Human Rights Watch said. It should also actively engage with and assist Belgrade in apprehending and arresting the suspects. 

"The European Union should not give in to Serbia's half-hearted cooperation with The Hague," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The EU needs to go beyond lip-service to accountability, or the victims of Srebrenica will never get the justice they deserve."

"The EU's credibility on international justice is on the line," Roth said. "If the EU doesn't follow through to ensure the arrest of the tribunal's last fugitives for war crimes committed in the heart of Europe, it will be hard to insist on justice for such crimes elsewhere."

Slovak MEP Eduard Kukan (European People's Party), chairman of the European Parliament's delegation for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, welcomed the ''compromise and political will'' of the EU's foreign ministers.

"I hope that Serbia will strengthen its efforts to meet the EU's expectations which would allow it to proceed towards candidate status. This would include a constructive attitude towards the dialogue with Kosovo and full cooperation with the ICTY," he stated.

"Today's decision is good news not only for Serbia but it is also a step forward in the process of integration in the Western Balkans region," he added. 

Commenting on the ministers' decision, German Green MEP and foreign affairs spokesperson Franziska Brantner said:

"EU foreign ministers have made the right decision: giving a clear signal to the Serbian people that their future lies in Europe but underlining the need for full cooperation with the ICC's tribunal on the former Yugoslavia. Serbian President Boris Tadi? has already admitted that arresting Ratko Mladic and other war criminals is a matter of political will: it is time for this will to be demonstrated and acted on."

"Today's decision must also be viewed in the context of Serbia's more constructive engagement on the issue of Kosovo's status, and a vindication of the approach of the Belgrade government. The EU must now also make sure that Kosovo doesn't remain the only country in the region isolated from Europe. The Commission must therefore urgently come forward with a road map for visa liberalisation for Kosovo," Brantner concluded.

Serbia, the 'core country' of the former Yugoslavia, is now on track to join the EU after a series of fratricidal wars in the nineties tested the international community's resolve and engaged considerable diplomatic and military resources.

However, the spectre of war still looms large over the country's EU association process.

In June 2004, reformist Boris Tadi? was elected president of Serbia. The same year, the EU launched a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) process – which in EU jargon means a special procedure for Western Balkan countries that opens the way to full EU accession.

SAA negotiations were launched, but were soon blocked due to lack of progress on Serbia's co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

In July 2008, war criminal Radovan Karadži? was arrested and sent to the ICTY. But the Netherlands kept insisting that the Stabilisation and Association process should be frozen until war criminals Ratko Mladi? and Goran Hadži? have also been arrested and sent to The Hague.

The Netherlands is particularly sensitive to Serbia's cooperation with the ICTY. The Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995, when an estimated 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed by the army of Republika Srpska and other paramilitary units, took place despite the presence of 400 armed Dutch peacekeepers in the area. Following an investigation, the Dutch government accepted partial responsibility and the second Wim Kok administration resigned in 2002.

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