Wednesday

15th Aug 2018

War crimes law poisons Serbia accession talks

  • Belgrade. Croatia says Serbia cannot not enter the EU with its law on universal juridiction (Photo: George Groutas)

It is a typical story of a behind-closed-doors dispute in Brussels that meets national sensibilities back home and becomes a political and diplomatic issue.

On 7 April, a Croatian expert told his colleagues in an EU committee on enlargement that his country did not agree with a document prepared by the European Commission ahead of discussions to open two chapters of Serbia's accession process.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • PM Aleksandar Vucic was in Brussels in December to officially launch Serbia's accession process (Photo: Council of the EU)

Media in Serbia said that Croatia was vetoing its EU membership and the Croatian government was reportedly asked by the European Commission and other member states not to stop the process.

The context was quite inflammable, as Serbia was in a campaign for last Sunday's (24 April) elections. And in Croatia, the government has stirred controversies over its rehabilitaion of nationalism.

But EU officials, although annoyed by the move, do not see it as so dramatic.

"It's a storm in a tea cup," a EU source told EUobserver.

"For the EU, it's not a big deal. This kind of things happens at other stage of the process and with other countries. There is nothing to get excited about."

"Croatia did not block. It did not say no, it said it was not yet ready to agree," the source said.

Another EU contact told this website that although Croatia did not veto the process, it was delaying it.

The commission said that "discussions are currently going on, with our support" and that it was "ready to move forward with next steps as soon as the required unanimity among member states is met".

Serbia's EU accession negotiations were launched last December with the opening of two chapters, on financial control and on the normalisation of Serbia-Kosovo relations.

The EU now wants to open two crucial chapters before the end of June: chapter 23 on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and chapter 24 on justice, freedom and security.

"We want to open them early because they are huge chapters and we want to have enough time to go through them," the second source told EUobserver.

One of the first steps to open accession chapters is agreeing on so-called opening benchmarks, which are prepared by the commission and set the requirements to be met by the candidate country.

Talks on the opening benchmarks for chapter 24 are going well. The controversy is over the benchmarks for chapters 23.

Croatia wants the EU benchmarks to include that Serbia must scrap a law on universial jurisdiction.

The legislation passed in 2003 gives Serbia's judiciary a competence over war crimes committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

"We have the right to say that this law affects regional cooperation," a senior Croatian official told EUobserver.

"This a question of national interest and there is 100 percent support for this position in Croatia," he said.

'Mini Hague Tribunal'

Last year, the then-prime minister Zoran Milanovic said that the law was "unacceptable" and that Serbia could not enter the EU with it in place.

His justice minister, referring to the UN tribunal on war crimes during the wars in ex-Yugoslavia, said that with this law, Serbia was trying to have its own "mini Hague Tribunal".

But Milanovic's government did not block the opening of accession negotiations with Serbia.

The new government led by Tihomir Oreskovic has kept the same positions over Serbia's accession and over the judiciary law.

"We are the biggest supporters of enlargement," the Croatian official said. "For any country including Serbia, if you don't have that goal, you cannot expect progress."

The official said that Croatia wanted to "make sure that everyone fulfills the criteria".

Accession negotiations are a legal process, but also a political one, the official said. And good neighbourhood relations and the rule of law are part of these political criterias Croatia wants Serbia to fulfill.

In Brussels, officials understand the political sensitivity expressed by Croatia.

'Emotional rejection'

Croatia, which is the newest EU member after joinining in 2013 saw its own accession process delayed by the case of Ante Gotovina, a former general who was hiding for The Hague war crimes tribunal, and then by a border dispute with Slovenia.

Two decades years after they ended, the wars in the former Yugoslavia also still weigh on the relationships with Serbia.

But for the EU, the political context cannot escape the legal reality.

The EU says that laws on universal juridiction are not covered by the community acquis that new member states have to absorb and that it cannot oblige Serbia to drop its legislation on the matter.

"The EU recognises that the existence of universal jurisdiction is well established under international law," a EU official said, adding that "a number of member states have adopted laws granting universal jurisdiction to their domestic courts".

Croatia insists these existing laws are different because they do not harm relations with neighbours.

Abolishing the Serbian law would affect Serbia less than its existence affects Croatia, the official said.

He admitted that this particular point is not understoood by Croatia's EU partners.

"There is a certain emotional rejection of Croatia's arguement," he said, adding that Croatia wanted "some kind of guarantee that [its] concerns will be taken into account".

Monitoring

Another issue is the protection of minorities in Serbia, in particular the Croatian minority.

Croatia says that Serbia "has not done enough" and points out that Croats are not represented in the Serbian parliament despite a bilateral agreement signed in 2004.

"Serbia needs to guarantee in practice" minorities' right in education, public administration and over the use of their language, an EU source said.

Chapter 23 has not yet been opened and discussions will be long before it is closed. It’ll be evn longe before the whole accession process is concluded, the EU sources said. That will leave plenty of time to secure guarantees from Serbia.

The EU "will carefully monitor" how Serbia will implement the measures requested by the EU on the "efficient and impartial treatment of war crimes, equal treatment of suspects, proportionality of sentences and protection of victims," a source said.

The discussions are going on and will stay at experts level, because the 27 other member states do not want it to be raised at the level of their ambassadors.

The commission still hopes to be able to open chapters 23 and 24 in June.

Opinion

Croatia joins EU's illiberal democracy club

Croatia's new PM is a political nobody. He's controlled by men who are about as pro-European as Kaczynski in Poland or Orban in Hungary and the EU should be worried.

Opinion

Serbia election: EU grasping at straws

The Macedonia crisis showed what happens when EU pupils turn autocrats. The elections in Serbia do not rule out the same scenario for the Serb PM.

Serbia PM wins crushing election victory

Prime minister Aleksandar Vucic increases his majority in parliament. The EU is relieved, but critics worry that he now has too much power.

Kosovo's gloomy visa-free future

EU proposal to lift visas for Kosovars created a positive buzz in Pristina. But what will it do to improve ordinary people's lives?

News in Brief

  1. Salvini questions EU 'constraints' after bridge collapse
  2. Bosnian Serbs to rewrite 1995 Srebrenica genocide report
  3. Malta to allow Aquarius migrants to disembark
  4. Juncker sends condolences over Genoa bridge collapse
  5. EU pledges €500,000 more for Indonesian earthquake island
  6. EU commission in talks with states on new Aquarius migrants
  7. Man held after car crashes into UK parliament security barrier
  8. Brexit delays better readability of medicines' instructions

Opinion

EU should brace for a more authoritarian Erdogan

The new blend of religious nationalism will be more anti-West and anti-EU, as Brussels has anything but leverage on Turkey. The first signs of this strong rhetoric are already visible.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  2. IPHRCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  3. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  4. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  5. IPHRCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  6. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  8. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  10. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  12. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma

Latest News

  1. US trial sheds light on murky Cyprus-Russia links
  2. Burned cars fuel Swedish election debate
  3. EU court to hear citizens' climate case against EU
  4. How long can Bulgaria keep facing both East and West?
  5. EU commission steps up legal case against Poland
  6. Separation of powers instead of 'Spitzenkandidat' process
  7. Revealed: ExxonMobil's private dinner with Cyprus' top EU brass
  8. What Salvini teaches us about Operation Sophia

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  3. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  4. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  6. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  7. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development
  8. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank
  9. FIFARecycling at the FIFA World Cup in Russia
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  11. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and Reconciliation Is a Process That Takes Decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  12. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  2. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries
  4. European Jewish CongressEU Leaders to Cease Contact with Mahmoud Abbas Until He Apologizes for Antisemitic Comments
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual Report celebrates organization’s tenth anniversary
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cooperation Needed on Green Exports and Funding
  7. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li Confirms China Will Continue to Open Up
  8. European Jewish CongressCalls on Brussels University to Revoke Decision to Honour Ken Loach
  9. Nordic Council of Ministers12 Recommendations for Nordic Leadership on Climate and Environment
  10. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOxford Professor Calls for an End to the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  11. ACCAPeople Who Speak-Up Should Feel Safe to Do So
  12. Mission of China to the EUProgress on China-EU Cooperation

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us