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Cobblestone, detours, and roadblocks: Serbia’s rocky trip to Europe

, by Peter Strempel

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Ask people what comes to their mind when asked about Serbia and they will most probably mention Milosevic, Kosovo, and.....and that’s about it.

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The limited perception of people of the biggest country of the Western Balkans is a clear indicator of the problems Serbia, its political establishment and its people, are facing.

But what are the hard facts, what is the status quo of Serbia’s attempt to move closer to the European Union ?

The EU has repeatedly declared that the integration of the Western Balkan States is a top priority and that all countries of the region must and do have a clear European perspective (Thessaloniki Summit in June 2003). Commission President Barroso and Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn emphasised again, during a recent Balkan tour d’etats, the readiness of the EU Member States to support the necessary progress, but only on the condition that the countries of the region show initiative and commitment to cooperate with each other.

Since 2001 the EU is providing policy advice - nowadays through the so called Enhanced Permanent Dialogue (EPD) - and monitors and drives reforms on the basis of the European Partnership adopted by the Council of Ministers in June 2004.

Formal contractual relations between the EU and Serbia and Montenegro are supposedly established through a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), and following a positive Feasibility Report of the Commission, the Council invited the Commission in April 2005 to submit the so called “negotiation directives” for the SAA.

So far so good. However, the obstacles for a conclusion of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement have increased since then.

A first hurdle, slowing down the whole process, is the rather instable and indefinite Union between Serbia and Montenegro. The EU currently follows a “twin-track” approach, holding negotiations both with the State Union and the separate Republics in their respective fields of competence. The announcement of Montenegro’s Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic to hold a referendum on Montenegro’s independence on May 21 and a potentially following split of the Union will certainly not ease the situation in this regard.

A second and more pressing obstacle for Serbia is its lack of co-operation with the ICTY - the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The arrest of Slobodan Milosevic and his extradition to the ICTY in 2001 was certainly a first positive step, but the Serbian government and in particular the Serbian Army have done little to support the capture of the two most wanted remaining culprits - Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. Commissioner Rehn made it very clear that further talks on the SAA conclusion will be put on hold if Belgrade does not comply with the demands of the ICTY and the UN’s Chief War Crimes Prosecutor Carla del Ponte.

On top of all there is the still pending question on the final status of the Kosovo. Talks between the Serbian and the Kosovo-Albanian government about the future political framework for the shattered province have started in Vienna a few weeks ago. Negotiations have moved slowly and little progress has been made so far, but at least there is noticeable good will on both sides, furthered by an understandable sense of resignation among the Serbian negotiators especially after the bluntly expressed conviction of European policy makers that Kosovo shall and will become an independent state.

The problems in foreign affairs and EU relations are also accompanied by the more than troublesome domestic political situation. President Kostunica shows the well-known nationalistic face, while Prime Minister Tadic is busy calming down international observers with his pragmatism and Europhilia.

But regardless of all resentments and bitterness in the air, the Serbian people know where to look at - and this is Brussels. Their hopes in moving closer to the European community shall be met with enthusiasm and approval. The Union is first of all a peace project.

Let us never forget that...

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