BRUSSELS, 25 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Serbia's aspirations for closer ties with the European Union could suffer a severe setback on 27 February, when the bloc's foreign ministers weigh its record of pursuing war crimes suspects.
The suspension of its Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) talks with Brussels would bring to a halt its progress towards eventual EU membership. In 2003 the EU assured all western Balkan countries they will join the bloc, provided they meet certain criteria. Assisting the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is one of the foremost.
The Future At Risk
Also at risk is Serbia's growing prosperity and, possibly, the future of its political and economic reforms.
The EU, for its part, will not be keen to push Serbia too hard. To spread stability and prosperity, the EU's so-called soft power is dependent on the voluntary cooperation of its neighbors.
Enlargement Commissioner Rehn's spokeswoman, Krisztina Nagy, said the commissioner will on 27 February discuss Serbia's record with EU foreign ministers.
"As far as [Serbia’s] cooperation with the [Hague] tribunal is concerned, Commissioner Rehn will report his assessment to the ministers, the [External Affairs] council, to the EU foreign ministers, and then I expect that the ministers will discuss the issue among themselves," Nagy said, though she added that she could not speculate on what Rehn's verdict will be.
A Crucial Few Days
Much could hinge on unforeseeable developments over the next few days. The decision whether to suspend SAA negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro will rest with the ministers. However, the ministers can only act if Rehn presents them with a formal European Commission proposal for a decision.
When negotiations started in October, the commission and the 25 EU member states issued a joint declaration that they should be suspended if Serbia fails to satisfy the EU on a number of issues. Cooperation with the ICTY is high on that list.
On 23 February, Rehn told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee that he has "a very strong message" for Serbia. That message is that when the European Commission made its recommendation to the EU member states to start SAA talks with Serbia in April 2005, Serbia was cooperating with the ICTY.
Toward Full Cooperation
A dozen indictees surrendered themselves voluntarily to the Hague tribunal. However, the commission at the same time said Serbia must immediately move on to full cooperation with the ICTY, meaning the arrest and transfer to The Hague of Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic and wartime leader Radovan Karadzic.
Spokeswoman Nagy said on 24 February that Rehn feels that time is running out for Belgrade to avoid EU retaliation. "The commissioner [Rehn] clearly said that now, nearly a year later, we see that [Serbia's] cooperation [with the ICTY] has in fact deteriorated," she said. "And he clearly stated [on 23 February] in the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee that if Serbia still fails to achieve full cooperation, we can not avoid the disruption of negotiations on this very important agreement for stability and association with Serbia and Montenegro."
Whatever the decision, the EU member states and the European Commission will need to strike a fine balance.
Looking For Some Sort Of Balance
The EU cannot appear to be too lenient, especially after it started membership talks with Croatia in October with that country's main war crimes indictee, General Ante Gotovina, still at large. Gotovina was eventually caught in December, but in October many in the EU felt a dangerous precedent was being set for other Balkan nations.
On the other hand, the EU will be keen not to needlessly antagonize Serbia -- risking a backlash from its government or public opinion, which in the long run would not benefit either Serbia itself or the EU.
Further enlargement is still a touchy topic in the wake of the EU's constitutional debacle last year and a blow to Serbia's hopes could damage the entire process. Austria, the current EU chair, is a champion of EU enlargement to the Balkans and will be keen to avert such damage.
EU officials therefore reject talk of an "ultimatum" to Serbia. One EU source said Rehn could propose to "disrupt" the SAA talks -- a term that is interpreted to be a little less severe than "suspend." Also, officials say, the EU will not follow the U.S. tactic of threatening to cut aid.
But, one EU diplomat who asked not to be named told RFE/RL that without a SAA -- which was scheduled to come into effect before the end of the year, Serbia will "lose out." The SAA would greatly improve Serbia's access to EU markets. It would also make Serbia more attractive to outside investors.
Views among member states are likely to differ, too. When Croatia's SAA came up for ratification, Great Britain and the Netherlands held out for a long time, demanding Gotovina's arrest.
EU officials say they cannot predict how the row will affect Montenegro, which plans to hold a referendum on independence shortly and has a good record of cooperation with the ICTY.
However, one EU source told RFE/RL that Montenegro's progress in SAA talks has been found wanting and the country will need longer than the initially predicted 12 months to wrap them up.