30th Mar 2023

EU seeks ways to boost Serbia's pro-European course

EU foreign ministers will today (28 January) seek some form of political gesture for Serbia ahead of the second round of the country's presidential elections.

While Serbia is to be a major topic on the ministers' agenda, they have yet to agree on what is the best approach to Belgrade one week before the elections, the outcome of which is seen as crucial for Serbia's further EU integration.

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Many member states are still pushing to sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Belgrade, but the Netherlands and Belgium firmly oppose such a move.

Full unanimity is required to sign the document and "we don't have full unanimity at this stage," one diplomat said on Friday (25 January).

"But you never know what the situation will be after the morning coffee on Monday," he added.

The two countries will be under a lot of pressure to show flexibility and let the SAA be signed, but the Netherlands is not expected to yield.

The country has said it would only lift its opposition to signing the agreement if Serbia cooperates fully with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague – meaning arresting and handing over war crimes indictee Ratko Mladic.

The SAA is seen by some as a tool that could be used to boost Serbia's pro-Western presidential candidate, current president Boris Tadic.

He will on Sunday (3 February) face radical nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, who won the first round of the elections on 20 January obtaining almost 40 percent of the votes.

But it could also be counter-productive. If signed, it could be used by Mr Nikolic and presented as a trade-off for Serbian leniency on the independence of its breakaway province Kosovo, diplomatic sources indicated.

Meanwhile, another option has been floated. This would see an interim trade agreement – trade accounts for the largest part of the SAA – signed on Monday.

But some member states are reported to also oppose this move.

The 27 foreign ministers will discuss the different options over lunch on Monday.

They are not expected to reach any decision on another thorny issue, however – the deployment of an EU mission in Kosovo. This was agreed by EU leaders last December but is opposed by Serbia.

Any formal discussion or move concerning the breakaway province seems to have been put on stand-by so as to not interfere with the elections' results, with Kosovo not featuring formally on the ministers' agenda at all.

Africa and the Middle East

Along with Serbia, the meeting will also review the latest developments in the Middle East with a focus on the situation in Gaza.

The foreign ministers are expected to discuss a new mechanism to channel humanitarian aid to Gaza planning to focus European aid more on sustainable and long-term economic development. Other international donors will also be invited to contribute to the new mechanism.

Monday's meeting is also set to launch the long awaited EU peacekeeping force for Chad and the Central African Republic, diplomats said on Friday.

After some five months of preparations, the 3,700-strong mission is set to be deployed in the first week of February, according to news agency AFP.

The ministers will also condemn the acts of violence that have been taking place in Kenya since last month's presidential elections.

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