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EU calls on Serbia to commit to Europe

The European Union urged Serbia on Wednesday to make clear it saw its future with Europe and laid out incentives on visas, education and transport to try to boost the bloc’s image in the Balkans.

The appeal came after the party of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica called for a rejection of ties with the EU until the bloc withdraws its backing for an independent Kosovo, which seceded from Serbia last month. The EU sees the long-term accession of Balkans states, among them Serbia, as key to the stability of southeastern Europe. But the row with Belgrade over Kosovo has raised concerns, that Serbia could shun the EU and turn towards Russia in future.

EU Enlargement Commission Olli Rehn told a news conference the EU wanted to nurture ties with Belgrade if it was willing. “Certain recent statements in Belgrade to pull back from EU integration unfortunately seem to rule this out,” he said. “We ask the Serbian government to reaffirm its commitment to closer ties with the EU ... We are ready to move on once Serbia is ready to do the same,” he added, saying there was a “silent majority” of Serbs who backed eventual EU membership. In a move aimed at consolidating what the EU sees as strong public support for EU entry in the Western Balkans, Rehn made proposals for eventual phasing out of EU visa requirements, doubling scholarships to the bloc and boosting transport links.

The Serb parliament is expected to adopt a resolution within days saying further steps towards Serbia’s accession to the EU can take place only if the bloc acts to “clearly and unequivocally affirm the entirety of Serbia’s territory”. The draft is backed by Kostunica’s party and the Socialists of late President Slobodan Milosevic, who together hold 144 of the assembly’s 250 seats. Serbia’s parliament speaker Oliver Dulic was quoted in local media on Wednesday as saying the ruling coalition was so divided on the EU that a referendum might be needed on whether Serbia should pursue the distant goal of EU membership.

Kostunica attacked the EU for concluding in its policy paper that Kosovo has “a clear and tangible EU perspective”, while failing “to acknowledge that Serbia has annulled Kosovo’s declaration of independence”. He said Serbia needed to have a clear answer as to whether any future deals with the EU see Serbia as “a whole country”, with Kosovo, or “a crippled state”, without it. Belgrade and its ally Russia have branded as illegal the 2,000-strong EU police supervisory and administration mission that is due to take over from the United Nations in Kosovo.

NATO, which has 16,000 peacekeepers in the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian territory, has also said it wants to advance ties with Belgrade, but no move is expected at an alliance summit in April. Prime Minister Janez Jansa of Slovenia, holder of the EU presidency, said he saw no early rapprochement with Serbia. “Regarding latest decisions and political resolutions it is clear that some time will pass before Serbia will again be able to concentrate fully on ensuring European perspective but the EU door is open to Serbia,” he told a news conference in Ljubljana. Serbia has initialed a pre-membership Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), but the EU has blocked signing until Belgrade delivers remaining war crimes suspects. Kostunica rejected a lesser pact the EU offered in January.

The Commission paper said Croatia, which hopes to join the EU next year, still needed to make progress in reforms and address a fishing row with EU states. It urged more progress from Macedonia and Albania without spelling out a start date for accession talks, and reaffirmed Bosnia could sign its SAA soon if it reformed its police. (Reuters)