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16th Apr 2024

Netherlands prepared for 'creative solution' on Serbia

The Netherlands has indicated readiness to allow some EU concessions to Serbia ahead of early elections in the country, but remains opposed to signing a pre-accession deal with Belgrade.

"It is time to promote trust in Europe among Serbian voters," Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen told a parliamentary committee on Thursday (24 April), according to Reuters.

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"We want to make clear that we have nothing against Serbia," he added.

Several EU states are reportedly favourable to signing a pre-accession deal with Belgrade – a so-called Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) – in order to boost the country's pro-Western forces ahead of the 11 May elections, which are seen as crucial for the country's future.

The vote will primarily pit current President Boris Tadic's Democrats against the nationalists of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) – currently the largest party in parliament.

However, the signing of the SAA is conditional on full cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal in the Hague – in particular, Serbia is expected to arrest and hand over war crimes indictee Ratko Mladic.

The Netherlands and Belgium are particularly strict on that point, refusing to yield and let Serbia closer to the EU before this condition has been fulfilled.

Mr Verhagen said his country could offer a gesture to Serbia now, because general Mladic would never be arrested if the nationalists came to power. But the Hague would still rather "look for a creative solution to this dilemma," and remains opposed to signing the SAA until Belgrade cooperates fully with the tribunal.

Possible concessions could include visa liberalisation and trade access for Serbian products, Mr Verhagen said.

A similar deal was proposed by the EU in February and rejected by Serbia's Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

Mr Verhagen's comments come ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers next Tuesday (29 April) in Luxembourg, when a discussion on Serbia is planned.

However, diplomatic sources have ruled out a signing of - or an offer to sign - any document with the Balkan country on this date. Instead, ministers will look at ways to reaffirm "Serbia's EU perspective".

A possible signing of the SAA is dividing Serbia's own political elite, with Mr Kostunica opposed to the move, considering it would mean abandoning Kosovo – which proclaimed independence two months ago, but which Serbia still considers Serbian territory – and recognising its independence.

At the same time, pro-European forces in Serbia favour signing the agreement, with President Tadic having repeatedly stated that Serbia's EU integration should continue no matter what.

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