EU stamps seal of approval on Serbia

29th April 2008, Comments 0 comments

An agreement will be signed but will only be implemented after Belgrade shows it willingness to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal.

29 April 2008

LUXEMBOURG - The European Union gave its seal of approval Tuesday to a key agreement designed to bring Serbia closer to EU membership.

But while the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) was expected to be signed in the afternoon by Serbian President Boris Tadic, EU officials said it would not be implemented until Belgrade proved that it was cooperating fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

"The council decided to have the SAA with Serbia signed today," said Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, who chaired the council meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg at which the decision was made.

"I have just invited President Tadic to join us here in Luxembourg," he said. The signing ceremony was scheduled to take place at 4 pm local time (1400 GMT).

The SAA is a document setting out how an aspiring EU member should reform its political, economic and legal systems to come in line with EU norms, and how the EU should help it do so. It is widely seen as a precursor to candidacy for full EU membership.

Rupel said the agreement to sign the SAA was "a strong signal to Serbia to join us, to come to the EU."

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, a pro-European member of the government, hailed the decision as "an important political statement" opening the doors to Serbia's EU membership.

"This is going to be a historical day for Serbia and for the Western Balkans. From today on, the path towards full EU integration of the Western Balkans is irreversible," Jeremic said.

The breakthrough came after one of the staunchest opponents of the Serbian SAA, The Netherlands, offered a compromise aimed at breaking the deadlock.

Ahead of the meeting, Dutch officials said that while they were willing to sign the SAA, it would not come into full effect until Belgrade handed over all remaining war-crimes suspects, most notably Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian-Serb general indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity, to The Hague.

"The Netherlands and Belgium have been very flexible and put forward several proposals, because we want to give the Serb people a signal that we care about them and that their future is in Europe," Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said ahead of the Luxembourg meeting.

Rupel confirmed that the SAA's implementation would depend "on the assessment of the council (of EU member states) on whether full cooperation (with the ICTY) has been in place."

EU officials hope that the SAA will give Tadic and other pro- European forces that are campaigning for the country's 1 May parliamentary elections an edge over its ultra-nationalist rivals.

Jeremic acknowledged as such, likening the 11 May vote to a referendum for or against Serbia's EU membership aspirations.

Jeremic also insisted his government would continue to work "very hard" to "make sure that our cooperation with The Hague is full, complete and unequivocal. And I am sure that this is quickly going to lead to the apprehension and handing over to The Hague of the very few remaining indictees that are still at large and are somewhere in our region," he said.

Some diplomats, however, have argued that the signing of the SAA before the elections could backfire politically.

In Belgrade, Serbian caretaker Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a nationalist, has portrayed the SAA as a sellout that implies Serbian approval of the independence of Kosovo, the predominantly ethnic-Albanian province that split from Belgrade on 17 February.

Rejecting such concerns, Tadic said the SAA was "first and foremost an economic agreement which can not in any way endanger the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia."

Meanwhile, EU ministers were also expected to offer the signing of an SAA to Bosnia-Herzegovina, following the country's agreement to reform its police, as requested by Brussels.

However, the actual signature was not expected to take place before the text was translated into all 23 EU languages.

[dpa / Expatica]

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