EU bid to resolve split over Serbia

European Union foreign ministers will try to overcome differences today over whether to offer Serbia a path to EU membership despite the Balkan nation’s failure to track down suspected war criminals.

European Union foreign ministers will try to overcome differences today 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 ease mounting anti-Western feeling in Serbia as Europe and the US appear likely to recognise an expected declaration of independence by its breakaway Kosovo province.

But the Netherlands and Belgium are opposed, saying the Serbs have shown insufficient co-operation with the United Nations 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 Stabilisation and Association Agreement would offer trade and co-operation 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 February 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) Stabilisation 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, joined his EU counterparts.

Mr Rupel will chair today’s meeting, the first by EU foreign ministers since Slovenia took over the EU’s rotating presidency on January 1.

Kosovo’s independence will loom large at the meeting. The province’s prime minister Hashim Thaci said last week a 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,” Mr Steinmeier said. “For that reason we will go along with a declaration of independence, as will the large, large majority of European Union members.”

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said last Friday 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.

On other issues, today’s meeting is expected to give final approval to an EU peacekeeping mission in Chad and the Central African Republic to help refugees from the conflict in the neighbouring Sudanese region of Darfur.

The mission was due to start last month, but has been delayed by nations’ reluctance to provide the 4,000 troops, as well as planes, helicopters and other equipment. But EU officials hope it will be able to start in February.

The meeting will also discuss Iran’s nuclear programme, Middle East peace efforts and the post-election crisis in Kenya.

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