BRUSSELS, 27 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The EU today put off by a month the difficult dilemma of how to deal with a Serbia keen to build ties but a lot less keen to bring its war crimes suspects to justice.
That outcome was in effect decided before the meeting. Javier Solana, the EU high representative for common foreign and security policy, told reporters at the beginning of today's meeting that Belgrade will have until the next round of cooperation talks to act decisively.
"We would like very much the cooperation of Serbia-Montenegro with the [ICTY] to be complete and to be total," Solana said. "And if that is not the case, we may have to put on hold the Stabilization and Association Agreement [SAA]. But they still have time until the next round of negotiations that will not take place until late March [4-5 April]."
EU foreign ministers adopted a statement today demanding measures from the government of Serbia -- and also that of Bosnia-Herzegovina –- to bring Bosnian Serb General Mladic and wartime leader Karadzic to justice "as quickly as possible."
Final, Final Warning
An EU diplomat told RFE/RL that Enlargement Commissioner Rehn had decided not to use his prerogative to call for EU action. But Rehn left little doubt in his address to the foreign ministers that if Belgrade fails to demonstrate full cooperation with the ICTY by the end of March, the SAA talks will be "disrupted." This means the round on 4-5 April will not take place. Also, other political contacts between the EU and Serbia will be downgraded.
SAA talks between EU and Serbia began in October and were scheduled to last approximately a year. Concluding an SAA is a necessary step for all western Balkan countries on their path to eventual EU membership -- a regional goal formally adopted by the EU in 2003.
Another EU source told RFE/RL that Carla Del Ponte, the ICTY's chief prosecutor, has asked the EU to keep up the pressure on Serbia, saying Serbia is not cooperating with the tribunal.
However, most EU member states as well as the European Commission have been careful in the past to stress that the EU will make up its own mind.
'Losing' Serbia Too Dangerous
Germany has in the past weeks spearheaded the effort to avoid an open confrontation with Serbia. Today, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told his EU colleagues that the EU "cannot lose Serbia."
"I will go to Serbia on [2 March] and of course I will point to that link that exists between, on one hand, our readiness to continue the negotiations for the Stabilization and Association Agreement and, on the other hand, the willingness of the Serbian government to cooperate" with the ICTY, Steinmeier told reporters in Brussels before the meeting.
Del Ponte's call for a tough stance was echoed by Great Britain and the Netherlands, among others. Both have a long history of fully backing the ICTY in its disputes with the western Balkan countries. Both maintained resistance for a long time to allowing Croatia to begin EU accession talks in October while its remaining war crimes suspect, General Ante Gotovina, was still at large. Gotovina was eventually caught in December.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters that if Serbia continues to fail to cooperate, "a total suspension of talks" is inevitable, while Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot also indicated he thinks Belgrade doesn't have a lot of latitude on the issue.
"I think we have to continue to press the [Serbian] authorities for the arrest of these two criminals and to transfer them to The Hague," Bot said. "It is quite simple."
In the end, however, Britain chose not to force the issue and Straw did not speak at all during the debate on Serbia.