BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union set Serbia on the path towards eventual membership of the 27-nation bloc on Wednesday by initialling a key first agreement covering the reforms needed for entry.
The EU made the move to help keep Serbia’s EU aspirations afloat during an impending showdown over the breakaway Serb province of Kosovo, despite criticism that it could take pressure off Belgrade to arrest remaining war crimes suspects.
Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn initialled the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) alongside Serbia’s President Boris Tadic and its chief EU negotiator, Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic, at a brief ceremony in Brussels.
“It is clear for the Serbian people, I trust, that the country now has a very concrete and not too distant perspective with the ultimate goal of EU membership,” Rehn told a joint news conference afterwards.
Tadic said he hoped the signing could take place “in the next few weeks” while Djelic said the aim was for Serbia to win formal recognition as a candidate country by the end of 2008 -- an ambitious target given established EU procedures.
“This is crucially important for ordinary people, a better life and stability in the Balkans,” Tadic said of the SAA pact.
Rehn said he agreed to the step only after U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte reported better cooperation by Belgrade, and stressed that formal signing would take place only once Serbia was cooperating fully with the Hague U.N. tribunal.
A spokeswoman for Del Ponte in The Hague said the prosecutor believed that “genuine political will did exist to arrest and transfer the remaining fugitives”.
Even if the signing of the SAA happens next year as planned, Serbia is not expected to join the EU until around 2015 at the earliest.
While EU officials deny any link between Serbia’s membership drive and efforts to resolve Kosovo’s fate, they want to avoid having an isolated and disgruntled Serbia on their doorstep and hope the initialling will boost pro-EU politicians in Belgrade.
Serbia’s nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who was not at the initialling ceremony, said on Tuesday the move was proof that Belgrade did not have to back down on Kosovo, whose independence claim Belgrade hotly rejects.
Western diplomats fear a new bout of instability in the Balkans if last-ditch efforts fail to find a compromise over the future of the majority ethnic Albanian province, whose leaders are threatening to declare independence anyway.
In a fresh chance for U.N. prosecutors to hold Serbia’s leaders responsible for crimes during the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s, the leader of Serbia’s ultranationalist Radical Party went on trial in The Hague on Wednesday.
Vojislav Seselj is accused of propagating ethnic hatred and inciting murder and torture, charges he denies.
Human Rights Watch criticised Rehn as soft on Serbia. The pressure group urged EU states to block signing of the SAA until Belgrade hands over Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general indicted for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims and the 43-month siege of Sarajevo.
“Commissioner Rehn is rewarding Serbia even as it harbours a general accused of genocide,” said Lotte Leicht, the group’s EU advocate.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson in The Hague and David Brunnstrom in Brussels