EU close to embracing Serbia

Serbia`s bid for entry tops the agenda at talks between EU foreign ministers.

Luxembourg: Serbia looks set for a crucial step forward in its bid to join the European Union on Monday despite last-minute wrangling within the EU over its failure to bring in top war crimes suspects.

Serbia`s bid for entry tops the agenda at talks between the 27-nation bloc`s foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, with diplomatic sources confident of an accord to usher in the country that applied for membership in December.

"We must reward President (Boris) Tadic who has made courageous choices and who manages with reason an unreasonable nation," said a top diplomat as EU capitals argued over a draft agreement circulating in diplomatic corridors.

"The EU must give him a boost," said the diplomat who asked not to be identified, adding that debate among EU states on Serbia`s adhesion were "difficult and at times difficult to digest”.

While most EU states favour ushering in Serbia for recently reaching out to Kosovo, the Dutch government has been demanding extra pressure be put on Belgrade as long as war criminals wanted by the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) remain on the run.

But the draft accord nonetheless opens the door to Belgrade to join the powerful EU club, diplomatic sources said.

It calls for the European Commission to offer an opinion on Belgrade`s application -- a first step in a country gaining formal status as an EU candidate, a process that generally takes around a year.

But the draft agreement under consideration adds tough conditions in the later stages of accession.

While calling for further progress in dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, it also demands a greater measure of cooperation with the ICTY.

"The most convincing proof" of increased Serbian cooperation with the court would be "the key matter of the arrest of the two remaining fugitives", Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, it adds.

In its current formulation the draft also states that Serbia`s path to accession will be blocked pending a unanimous decision from the 27 "that full cooperation with the ICTY exists".

"Several countries believe this is far too harsh, that we`re setting too many conditions," said one diplomatic source.

"Let`s be realistic."

In talks between the ministers overnight Sunday to Monday, all eyes will be on the position taken by the new minister from the Netherlands, which formed a new right-wing government this month.

Should an agreement to embrace Serbia emerge as expected on Monday, the EU will be attentive to follow up in its offer to broker talks between Serbia and Kosovo. The two agreed in September to try to resolve outstanding issues though Belgrade has never formally accepted the independence of its former province.

No starting date has been set for these talks but the EU is reported to want the process to kick off within weeks.

Last week, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci offered to start the dialogue before early polls in February that will be the first general elections since Kosovo unilaterally proclaimed independence from Serbia in February 2008.

Kosovo has been recognised as a state by 70 countries, including the United States and the majority of the EU, but Serbia refuses it and still considers Kosovo as its southern province.

Bureau Report

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