Monday

26th Sep 2022

Netherlands blocks EU-Serbia trade deal

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday (15 September) failed to unfreeze the trade related part of a pre-accession deal with Serbia, following the Netherlands' opposition.

"There is a very, very big majority saying that we [EU] should unfreeze [the agreement]. But there is no unanimity," French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, told journalists after the meeting.

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The EU signed a so-called Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) - including an interim deal aiming to facilitate economic and trade relations - with Serbia in April, but decided to freeze it until Belgrade is judged to cooperate fully with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Following the arrest of top war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic in July, a large majority of member states as well as the European Commission favoured unfreezing the trade-related part of the pre-accession deal.

The move has been blocked by the Netherlands, however, which still does not see Serbia's cooperation with the UN tribunal as sufficient and demands that remaining war crimes suspects Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic be arrested.

"Everybody else was on board, it was just The Netherlands that simply would not move," a diplomatic source told EUobserver.

Even after hearing of UN prosecutor Serge Brammertz, who according to Mr Kouchner said that Belgrade had achieved "very clear progress," The Netherlands was not convinced.

"I cannot conclude from what Mr Brammertz said that we can talk about full cooperation [with the tribunal," Dutch foreign minister Maxime Verhagen was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Unblocking in October?

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana was more optimistic, however, saying that the bloc's 27 ministers could agree to unblock the interim agreement during their next meeting in October.

"The discussion was very constructive, very positive. I am almost sure that [in October] we will unfreeze the interim agreement," he told journalists.

Romanian foreign minister Lazar Comanescu expressed a similar feeling.

"Even there [in the Dutch case] one could feel, out of the foreign minister's comments, that the recent developments in Serbia" are contributing to a certain level of trust-building, he said.

EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn reiterated the commission's position in favour of unfreezing the deal and called on EU member states to do so and to not neglect the Balkan region.

"I understand well that the focus of the EU has recently been on the Caucasus region, on the Eastern partnerships. In comparison the Western Balkans may look like benefiting from relative political stability," Mr Rehn said.

"But certainly there is no end of history in the Balkans and it is indispensable that we do not take any sabbatical from our work for stability and peace in the Western Balkans, but we continue to advance these countries' European perspectives," he added.

Dutch stance on Serbia 'very unfair,' says minister

The Netherlands' refusal to unfreeze the trade related part of a pre-accession deal with Serbia was "unfair" to Belgrade, but the country still intends to stick to its EU accession agenda and hopes to join the bloc by 2014, Serbian deputy prime minister Bozidar Djelic told EUobserver.

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