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EU divided on pact for Serbia

Latest update : 2008-01-29

EU members struggled to reach agreement on a pact for closer ties with Serbia. The Netherlands want full Serbian cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal on former Yugoslavia (ICTY), while Germany said it did not expect an early signature.

BRUSSELS, Jan 28 (Reuters) - The European Union's
enlargement chief urged the bloc on Monday to sign a pact with
Serbia on closer ties before next Sunday's presidential runoff,
but at least one EU country opposed such a move.

"We should today send a very strong signal of a European
future to the Serbian people by deciding to sign an SAA
(Stabilisation and Association Agreement) shortly," Enlargement
Commissioner Olli Rehn told reporters on arriving for a meeting
of EU foreign ministers.

Rehn seemed to make a concession by saying full cooperation
with the U.N. war crimes tribunal on former Yugoslavia (ICTY)
should be a condition for ratifying the agreement. The EU has
until now made that a condition for signing the pact, which is a
first formal step on the long path to EU membership.

"I would be in favour of signing SAA while of course
maintaining the conditionality of full cooperation with ICTY for
ratification and any further steps towards EU unity," he said,
also urging EU countries to quickly ease arrangements for Serbs
to travel to the bloc.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana also said he backed an
early move to sign the SAA with Serbia, whose Foreign Minister
Vuc Jeremic was due to fly to Brussels later for a previously
scheduled meeting with his EU counterparts.

However Dutch European Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans
said the Netherlands, which has led opposition to taking a more
lenient line on Belgrade, could block any early step.

"We will not sign till we have full cooperation with the
ICTY," he told reporters.

The tribunal is seeking the arrest and transfer of former
Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic on genocide charges
over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 7,000 Bosnian Muslims.


Rehn backed the signing of a full SAA rather than an interim
deal with Belgrade on aspects such as trade and cooperation.

Several EU diplomats had mooted the idea of an interim deal
to boost pro-European incumbent President Boris Tadic but
officials said they received mixed signals from Belgrade as to
whether a signing ceremony would hurt or help his prospects.

Tadic faces a battle to defeat nationalist challenger
Tomislav Nikolic in the run-off after the pro-Russian hardliner
took a five-point lead in last Sunday's first round.

Although the presidency has little power, EU leaders are
keen to see Tadic win to bolster pro-European forces ahead of an
expected declaration of independence by Serbia's breakaway
Kosovo province.

If there is no EU consensus to offer Serbia an SAA, foreign
ministers will instead focus on their willingness to negotiate
on offering Serbs easier travel to the EU, diplomats said.

A Serbian analyst said delaying the SAA any longer will
"fuel a widely present perception of permanent exclusion and
unparalleled conditioning".

"Conservatives would only benefit," Srdjan Gligorijevic,
chief analyst for the Belgrade-based International and Security
Affairs Centre think-tank, told Reuters.

"Serbia needs more collaborative relations with the EU, not
just a carrot-and-stick approach."

The leaders of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, who make
up 90 percent of the breakaway province's 2 million people, say
they are within weeks of declaring independence from Serbia.

The U.N. Security Council has been split and unable to agree
on Kosovo's future. The United States and major EU powers are
expected to recognise an independence declaration despite
opposition from Serbia and Russia.

Date created : 2008-01-29