Brussels, 28 January 2008 – European Union foreign ministers on Monday will seek to overcome differences over whether to offer Serbia a path to EU membership despite the Balkan nation’s failure to track down suspected war criminals.

Most EU nations want to conclude the deal quickly to mitigate mounting anti-Western feeling in Serbia as Europe and the United States appear likely to recognize an expected declaration of independence by its breakaway Kosovo province.

The Netherlands and Belgium, however, are opposed, saying the Serbs have shown insufficient cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, which is still searching for Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, who led the Serb faction during Bosnia’s civil war in the early 1990s.

The Stabilization and Association Agreement would offer trade and cooperation advantages to Serbia as well putting on track open membership talks with the EU.
Supporters of the deal believe signing before the second round of Serbia’s presidential elections on Feb. 3 would give a boost to pro-Western incumbent Boris Tadic against his nationalist opponent, Tomislav Nikolic, whose support has grown amid dissatisfaction with international support for Kosovo’s independence drive.

«We should … help Serbia on its approach to the European Union,» Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel said last week. «One of the forms of such assistance, or a sign of closeness, should be a signature of (the) Stabilization and Association Agreement in the coming days.

However, diplomats said firm Dutch opposition made it unlikely the agreement could be signed when Serbia’s foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, joins his EU counterparts.

Rupel will chair Monday’s meeting, the first by EU foreign ministers since Slovenia took over the EU’s rotating presidency on Jan. 1. Kosovo’s independence will loom large at the meeting. The province’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci last week said Kosovo’s declaration of independence could be days away.

The issue has opened a deep rift between Western nations and Russia, which supports Serbia’s opposition to Kosovo’s independence.German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the only alternative to the best possible outcome _ an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians _ was to support independence.

«We know that the solutions that we had hoped to reach in negotiations will not come about,» Steinmeier said in comments broadcast Sunday on Deutschlandfunk radio. «For that reason we will go along with a declaration of independence, as will the large, large majority of European Union members.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday said he could not yet give his blessing to a planned 1,800-strong EU policing mission in Kosovo because of the international dispute over province’s future.

Source: AP