Serbia and the EU: Mladic first, then talks
Serbia and the EU: Mladic first, then talks
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Serbia and the EU: Mladic first, then talks

Somewhere in Serbia the architect of the horrific 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Ratko Mladic, is walking freely, enjoying the tacit and furtive protection of the state. Somewhere in Europe, probably Brussels, EU diplomats and politicians are preparing to give him a new lease on liberty.

Next week, the Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Carla Del Ponte, will report to EU foreign ministers on Serbia's cooperation in handing over war crimes suspects to The Hague.

Her report has significant implications for present and future EU policy in the Balkans. As recently as 3 October she has indicated that Belgrade is not providing sufficient cooperation, but behind the scenes Brussels is pressuring Del Ponte to go easy on Belgrade so that it can sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Serbia, a key step towards membership negotiations.

Some are even arguing that Serbia should be accelerated to candidate member status, perhaps as early as next year, in spite of the fact that Serbia continues to flout one of the EU's main criteria for signing a stabilisation deal: the arrest of war crimes suspects, in particular Mr Mladic.

So why is Brussels in a rush to willingly drop its standards? The answer you hear is Kosovo. The EU is deeply divided over Kosovo's impending independence, which will most probably be declared by Pristina without a UN Security Council resolution in early 2008.

Some EU member states - Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia, and Romania - deeply oppose recognising an independent Kosovo without a Security Council resolution and will only reluctantly permit the EU to put a civilian supervisory mission in place to replace the current UN mission, and only provided the EU does all it can to try and demonstrate good will towards Belgrade.

Others in the EU, while hoping for a Security Council resolution, are willing to recognise an independent Kosovo without one, but agree that Brussels should give Serbia something in return. That something is rapid progress on the road to EU membership.

Such a coupling of the two issues, however, is tragically misguided.

To move Belgrade forward in the accession process, the EU would have to drop the principles and conditions it demanded of other countries in the Balkans, with negative consequences for the region. Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro have all made significant sacrifices on the road to European integration.

At great cost, Bosnia has fulfilled all the EU Stabilisation criteria except for police reform, and could soon see progress even in that sphere. Croatia has had to arrest all its war crimes suspects, in the process shaking out its intelligence services and judiciary. Macedonia has had to undertake numerous painful reforms and also subject itself to the Hague Tribunal's jurisdiction. Montenegro has begun a rigorous internal reform process against substantial opposition and cooperated fully with The Hague.

Belgrade, on the other hand, continues to harbour Mr Mladic and quite possibly Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader. For years it was an open secret among Serbia's political elite that Mladic enjoyed the protection of the state and that he was untouchable. Nothing has changed.

Dropping conditionality for Serbia will tell the rest of the Balkan countries that rules and standards don't matter and will surrender what little leverage the EU has over Belgrade. It will encourage Bosnian politicians to obstruct police reform. It will encourage Croatia's politicians to drag their feet on refugee return and restitution.

It will tell Macedonia and Montenegro that they can fudge on the accession process. It will tell Kosovo that it need not take seriously the implementation of the standards in the UN-sponsored plan for its supervised independence. It will also anger Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro, who see Serbian misbehaviour consistently rewarded by Brussels and feel a double standard is in place.

Surrendering European principles will not produce the desired result. It will not change Belgrade's policy on the Hague Tribunal or Kosovo. Rather, nationalist hard-liners will see this as a vindication of their policies, and it will weaken Serbia's democratic forces, who will be shown to have been fools for having supported EU standards.

Serbia cannot take a step on the road to Europe while still wearing the leg irons of Mladic and Karadzic. The best intentions of Europe aside, only Serbia can free itself of these shackles. The EU's message to Serbia should be clear: no Mladic, no Stabilisation Agreement.

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