Serbia requires patience over Europe

Despite Ireland’s affirmation of the Lisbon Treaty, Serbia should refrain from applying for candidacy until the interim trade agreement is unblocked.

By Ian Bancroft

Voting for the second time in eighteen months, the Irish electorate’s convincing support for the Lisbon Treaty constitutes an important moment for the enlargement perspective of the Western Balkans. Though the Czech Republic remains a potential obstacle, eventual ratification of the Lisbon Treaty will remove one of the main impediments to future enlargement. In spite of this renewed optimism, however, Serbia should refrain from applying for EU membership until the interim trade agreement is unblocked.

Aside from the global economic downturn and signs of enlargement fatigue, the on-going failure to ratify the Treaty has cast a shadow over the region’s European perspective. Following Ireland’s first decisive rejection of the Treaty, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, was quick to assert that, “without the Lisbon Treaty, there will be no enlargement”; a view shared by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, amongst others. Though the EU appeared ready and willing to admit both Iceland (should it ultimately choose such a course) and Croatia (who recently secured a compromise with Slovenia that unblocks its accession negotiations with the EU) without the institutional amendments delineated by Lisbon, further expansion into the Western Balkans seemed inconceivable.

The Irish vote therefore “opens up a new episode in the development of the EU”, according to Vuk Jeremić, Serbia’s foreign minister. Having seemingly met all the conditions to secure visa liberalization from 2010, Serbia also plans to apply for EU candidacy before the end of the year; following in the footsteps of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRoM), which received candidate status in 2005, Montenegro and Albania, who applied for EU membership in December 2008 and April 2009, respectively.

The Netherlands, however, continues to insist upon the apprehension of Ratko Mladic prior to Serbia enjoying the benefits of the interim trade agreement, which the latter started unilaterally implementing in 2009. Miroslav Lajčak, Slovakia’s foreign minister and the former high representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has argued that “it is wrong to tie an entire country to one man [Mladic]” and that the decision as to whether or not Serbia’s accession towards the EU can proceed should be made by ministers from EU member states, not by the Hague’s Chief Prosecutor, Serge Brammertz. With the Netherlands under increasing pressure from other EU member states to change its position, and with Brammertz expected to visit Serbia in October and report positively on its co-operation with The Hague in November, Lajčak believes that Serbia will soon receive “an appraisal of full cooperation [with the ICTY]”.

Until the interim trade agreement is unfrozen, however, Serbia should postpone any plans to apply for EU candidacy. Whilst there exists a persistent political impulse to demonstrate tangible progress towards membership of the EU, the heightened expectations deriving from applying for candidacy – for which no immediate benefit would be attained without a softening of the stance of the Netherlands and the emergence of a consensus within the EU in support of Serbia’s application – only risks further fuelling domestic disappointment and scepticism regarding the issue of EU integration.

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