EU Foreign Affairs Ministers on Monday (7 December) removed restrictions against the Interim Trade Agreement with Serbia after the Netherlands put aside objections related to Belgrade's performance on war crimes probes. The move is good news for Belgrade on its EU accession track and comes just one week after the bloc's interior ministers decided to lift visa requirements for Serb citizens as of 19 December.
18 months’ blockade
Until yesterday the Netherlands remained the only country that was blocking the interim trade agreement -the trade part of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA)- for 18 months. The agreement was signed in April 2008 and was never ratified due to the Dutch position, even though its terms were implemented internally by Serbia in a situation playing to the EU's financial advantage. The SAA itself remains suspended.
First arrest of fugitives no longer counts
According to the Dutch Foreign Minister, Maxime Verhagen, his “change of mind” must be seen as a reward for Serbia’s efforts to try to catch war crimes fugitives Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic. Although this has not yet been achieved, Mr. Verhagen considers that meanwhile Belgrado is fully cooperating with the Hague War Crime Tribunal.
The Dutch Minister based his judgement on the presentation that was given by the Prosecutor of the War Crime Tribunal's Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz, to the EU’s Foreign Affairs Ministers on Monday. In it, Brammerts said that Serbia has made "constant progress" in efforts to finalise cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, noting however that the arrest of war criminals Mladic and Hadzic remains the key issue. He also recognised the professionalism and commitment of operational services tasked with the tracking of fugitives. It was the most positive report Serbia has received to date. Earlier, the arrest of the two criminals was an important precondition of the Netherlands in order to give trade benefits to Serbia. For Verhagen it is more than enough now that the Belgrade government is doing everything to catch the two men. Although the agreement simplifies trade between the EU and the former Yugoslav Republic, the Dutch FM stated that it is too early for Serbia to apply for EU membership.
Serbian President satisfied
Serbia's President Boris Tadic welcomed the move. He said that the unfreezing of the Interim Trade Agreement makes Serbia look like a safe destination to investors and opens new room for Serbia to apply for candidacy. “The visa liberalization and unfreezing of the interim trade agreement both show that we are a country with more credibility in Europe and the world, a country which foreign investors look at as a safe destination for placing their capital and opening new jobs,” Tadić told reports at the congress of the Party of European Socialists (PES) in Prague. He added that there will be a thorough analysis done, and a decision made soon on when Serbia will be applying for EU candidacy.
Tadić participated in the 8th Congress of the PES on Monday, which the Democratic Party (DS) is interested in joining even though only Socialist and Social Democratic Parties in countries that are either EU member-states or candidates are allowed into the organization.
By implementing the trade agreement the EU will reduce its import tariffs for Serbian goods. Moreover, European companies will be able to export more easily to Serbia. Expect for an economical benefit, the trade agreement is of political importance: it takes Serbia closer to EU membership.
Many EU member states were already planning to go a step further and establish a broader cooperation agreement with Serbia, as a move towards membership. The Dutch FM blocked this. He wants –before the EU actually will stake this step- that next summer Brammertz will confirm that the cooperation of the Serbian authorities is permanent. By putting pressure, Mr Verhagen wanst to fasten the extradition of Mladic and Hadzic. “The sooner these two men are put behind bars, the quicker the EU can approve the tight cooperation with Serbia”, Verhagen said.
Sources: Balkan Insight; B92; NRC Handelsbald (Dutch); EUObserver