EMOTIONS: Aspirations to join the EU, encouraged by the bloc’s decision to implement the free trade agreement with Serbia and exempt the country’s citizens from Schengen visa requirements, are tempered by the complication of Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, which in February 2008 brought citizens out in protest on the streets of Belgrade.
If Croatia becomes the 29th European Union member state, Serbia wants to be the 30th, either alone or with others, Serbian deputy prime Bozidar Delic was quoted by media in Belgrade as saying on December 14.
Delic’s arithmetic was unclear, given that the EU had 27 member states; most likely he was assuming that the 28th member state would be Iceland.
Signs are that Croatia could lead the field among the Western Balkans candidates, given that Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has said that Zagreb could complete accession negotiations in the first half of 2010. However, still standing in the way of Croatia’s hopes is the question of co-operation with The Hague tribunal, with Maxime Verhagen, foreign minister of The Netherlands, saying that he cannot see his way clear to the judiciary chapter being cleared until Croatia satisfies the requirements of The Hague chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz.
For Serbia, there have been some positive signs of late, notably the decision by EU foreign ministers on December 7 to unblock the free trade agreement between the bloc and Serbia, a step long held up by the equivalent question of co-operation with The Hague tribunal, with The Netherlands and Belgium having been adamant in their opposition to any movement pending progress on the handing over of war criminals by Belgrade.
Delic put a positive spin on this issue in a speech in Belgrade on December 14, saying that the positive signals from the EU had spurred Serbia to increase its efforts to arrest and hand over war crimes suspects that were still at large.
While there had been several reports that Serbia would submit a formal application by Christmas (variously, by the end of 2009) to join the EU, a key factor that has emerged is Belgrade’s stated desire to be sure in advance about the reaction to such an application across the bloc.
This stance by Belgrade is a result of several clear statements by influential players in the EU, first, that Serbia should not be too hasty, and second, that it should be certain of how an application would be received.
Speaking in Brussels on December 9, Rehn was reluctant to discuss the timing of Serbia’s EU application. "Each step at the right time," he said, "yesterday we put into effect the trade part of the agreement with Serbia and subsequent steps will be discussed".
Carl Bildt, foreign minister of Sweden, current holder of the rotating presidency of the EU, said that Serbia obviously was well-prepared and could progress towards EU membership faster than other Western Balkans countries.
Belgrade daily Blic, interviewing British ambassador Stephen Wordsworth, heard a similar message, that Serbia should first be certain that all EU member states would support an application.
The UK, along with Germany and Italy, is said to be among EU states in favour of Serbia submitting an application before the end of the Swedish presidency of the EU at the end of 2009, but in public all three are advocating caution. Serbian news agency Tanjug, in a December 12 report, quoted German charge d’affaires in Belgrade Hans-Ulrich Sudbeck as taking the now-familiar line that Serbia first should be certain that an application would be received positively by all EU states.
Delic has counted off the positive signals so far, from the free trade agreement to the fact that, on December 19, Serbia – along with Macedonia and Montenegro – will enjoy visa-free access to the Schengen zone.
Recalling the recent anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Delic said that "another wall fell with the liberalisation of visas for Serbia".
The Kosovo complication
However, from Serbia’s point of view, there is the profound complication of a lack of consensus internationally and specifically within the EU about its territorial integrity.
States from Britain to Bulgaria that publicly back Serbia joining the EU also are among the majority of EU members that have recognised Kosovo’s February 2008 unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia.
This has meant that Belgrade has had to sit and listen to countries that support its EU membership give oral evidence in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague endorsing the Kosovo breakaway.
Bulgaria was a case in point, typical of this ambivalence in relations with Serbia. Belgrade let it be known that it was deeply irked by Sofia’s evidence in favour of Kosovo in the international court, while just a few days later, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov spoke warmly in favour of Serbia’s EU accession.
Similarly, the Schengen visa deal for Serbia does not extend to Kosovo.
Further, Belgrade’s public appeals to states that have not recognised Kosovo to hold on to this stance pending the outcome of the ICJ process may have persuasive but not legal force. It is doubtful, given that the ICJ ruling would have the status only of an opinion, that any decision on recognition would be interpreted as a violation of the sub judice rule.
The Kosovo complication goes to the heart of the problem facing Serbia. The rules for EU membership are fixed and universal, and every significant voice in the EU has denied that Belgrade would have to recognise Kosovo to get into the club; a perspective that, for the time being, is convenient enough for everyone given that Serbia could not have made it clearer that it cannot accept what it sees as an illegal violation of its territorial integrity.