The EU’s 27 nations have signed a pre-membership trade and aid pact with Serbia to help pro-Western parties there win the May 11 elections and signaled they want to pull Serbia closer despite significant differences over Kosovo.
The union’s 27 foreign ministers and Serbian Deputy Premier Bozidar Djelic signed the deal on Tuesday. But, wary of Serbia’s Balkan wars record, the EU will only implement the pre-membership deal once Belgrade fully cooperates with the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague, which has demanded the extradition of the last remaining war crimes suspects.
The pact was signed after the Netherlands and Belgium lifted their vetoes on the signing of the so-called Stabilization and Association Agreement. But because it will not take immediate effect, the signing had a largely symbolic value.
Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said “the best proof” of Belgrade’s cooperation with the UN tribunal would be delivering four war crimes suspects — notably Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander wanted for the murder of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 — to trial in The Hague.
At a news conference with EU officials, Serbian President Boris Tadic said he hoped the signing of the pre-membership accord would discount the impact of anti-EU parties in the run-up to the May 11 elections.
“Many enemies of our European future are engaged in scare-mongering,” he said.
Tadic vowed to quickly extradite Mladic, ex-Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and other suspects, but said it was difficult because the suspects move around frequently and are at times abroad.
Tadic also called for his country to be made an official EU candidate country by the end of the year.
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic rejected criticism that it amounted to little more than a political gesture.
He said it was important in the run-up to this month’s elections, which he called “a referendum on our membership in the European Union.”
The pre-membership accord, when implemented, would offer Serbia easier travel to EU nations, as well as increased aid, trade and technical expertise to prepare it for possible entry into the EU.
The deal has been on the table for months, but was put on hold following Kosovo’s declaration of independence on Feb. 17, which soured EU-Serbia ties.
Serbian hardline Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica in Belgrade said the signing of the deal was “an act against the Constitution and the state and as such illegal and illegitimate.”
“It is worth absolutely nothing,” he said in a statement.
He said the signing of the agreement “cannot be interpreted as Serbia’s signature for the independence of Kosovo.”
EU officials insisted the EU-Serbia agreement does not apply to the territory of Kosovo, which declared itself independent from Serbia in February.