EU Dangles Membership to Woo Serbia

The Balkan state's pro-West President signs a pre-membership deal with the EU before an election showdown vs. nationalist parties

With just over a week to go until what is being billed as decisive elections in Serbia, the EU on Tuesday (29 April) sent a strong political signal to the western Balkan country that its future belongs in the European Union.

In a piece of political manoeuvring that gives the pro-EU forces in Belgrade something to use at home but upholds a key European demand, both sides signed a pre-membership deal at a meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

The deal came after the Netherlands and Belgium dropped their opposition to the move but on condition that the implementation of the agreement depends on Belgrade's cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal.

"This is a good day, a happy day for both Serbia and the EU," Slovenian foreign minister Dimitrij Rupel whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said after signing the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) in Luxembourg.

"Europe is ready to go a common way with Serbia" and now "the European future of Serbia is in the hands of the Serbian people," he added.

Serbian President Boris Tadic, who flew from Belgrade especially for the signing ceremony after a call from Mr Rupel earlier on Tuesday, said he was also "extremely pleased that Serbia is entering a contractual relationship with the EU."

Signing the SAA constitutes an important step towards eventual EU membership and this in turn will ultimately bring about a "final reconciliation of the peoples of the western Balkans," he added.

The decision was taken on Tuesday morning after Belgium and the Netherlands agreed to sign the SAA.

The two countries had originally said that Serbia must first fully cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) first, and arrest war crimes indictee Ratko Mladic.

Signing but not implementing

They yielded to the pressure of other EU states—who have been prepared to sign the agreement for weeks—on condition that Serbia will not get any concrete benefits from the agreement until Belgrade is judged as fully cooperating with the ICTY.

Normally, ratification of such documents is launched immediately after they are signed.

But in this case, the lengthy process will not start until all EU member states unanimously agree that Belgrade's cooperation with the ICTY is sufficient.

This could happen at the earliest in July, with a report on the matter by UN war crimes prosecutor Serge Brammertz expected in June.

Rejection by Serbia's prime minister

Meanwhile, the party of Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, has reiterated its opposition to signing the SAA and said the country's parliament would never ratify the document, according to Russian news agency Itar-Tass.

On Monday, Mr Kostunica himself said again that the SAA "undoubtedly represents an act against the state, an anti-constitutional act."

The Serbian premier argues that the fact that a majority of EU countries has recognised Kosovo's independence has changed the political situation, and has called for "talks with the EU on this new reality."

Whether the EU's concession has worked will become evident on 11 May when President Boris Tadic's pro-Western Democrats will face off against the radical and nationalist parties in Serbia.

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