EU ministers back closer ties with Belgrade

European Union foreign ministers have agreed to lift an obstacle in the path of Serbia's entry to the bloc, but also urged Belgrade to step up cooperation with the Dutch-based UN court for the former Yugoslavia.


AFP - EU foreign ministers decided Monday to boost ties with Serbia, bringing an end to an 18-month standoff over Belgrade's lack of cooperation with a UN war crimes court, diplomats said.

The move was made possible after the Netherlands, the only nation blocking the deal, dropped its opposition during the ministerial meeting in Brussels.

"The Dutch have said that they are making a gesture (towards Serbia) while keeping up the pressure" for it to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY)," a European diplomat said on the sidelines of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

The Netherlands was the only one of the 27 EU nations blocking an interim agreement on trade and aid.

The Dutch changed their stance after the Hague-based court's chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz, told the United Nations last week that Serbia's "cooperation has continued to progress".

However, the EU is still not ready to activate the full Stabilisation and Association Accord (SAA), which is deemed the first official step to EU membership.

The Netherlands, where the ICTY is based and whose peacekeepers were blamed in part when Bosnian Serbs led by fugitive genocide indictee Ratko Mladic over-ran the town of Srebrenica in 1995, has blocked Serbia's progress.

It had previously insisted that Belgrade's membership ambitions remain on hold until Mladic, deemed responsible for the killing of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, is handed over to The Hague-based tribunal.

Mladic, 67 and thought to have health problems, was believed to have been in Serbia although it is unclear whether he remains there.

But in a change of tone last week, Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen described Brammertz's report as "positive", sending signals that the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) might finally move forward.

Serbia signed the SAA in April 2008.

"We've always said that we would revisit our policy in light of a positive report, and the Brammertz report is a positive one," said one Dutch diplomat, with the UN prosecutor set to meet the ministers here Monday.

According to another EU diplomat "most member states would be prepared to go further and start ratifying (the SAA)," but the Dutch aren't ready to go that far, another diplomat said.

As he arrived to address the ministers, Brammertz said he still believed that top war crimes suspects could be brought to justice, with the help of international pressure.

In a draft statement prepared in advance for their two-day meeting in Brussels, the foreign ministers "agreed that the Union will start implementing the interim (SAA) agreement".

The draft somewhat echoes the opinions of the chief prosecutor himself.

At the United Nations, he said: "Serbia's cooperation with my office has continued to progress. Prosecution requests to access documents and archives are being dealt with more expeditiously and effectively."

Brammertz also insisted that it was essential for the cooperation to be maintained.

The UN prosecutor wants to encourage the new team of justice officials in Belgrade, part of a younger generation and less tied to the era of former strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who presided over the breakup of Yugoslavia.

News reports from Belgrade last Thursday said Serbian security agents had searched apartments belonging to suspected accomplices of Mladic and the other top war crimes fugitive, Goran Hadzic, seizing documents.

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said last month that Belgrade would apply this year to join the EU, hoping to enter by 2014. The EU granted Serbian citizens visa-free travel last week.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app