EU Foreign Ministers (sitting in GAERC meetings) have met (for the first time under the Slovenian Presidency) today in Brussels. Besides Pakistan, Middle East and others there was one dominant issue on the table – much discussed in the media recently – Serbia. Minister Rupel has long been advocating a fast-track access to the EU for Serbia, under specific conditions. While this hasn’t been well accepted in some parts of Europe (above all in Belgium and the Netherlands), I have to give him credit for the persistence. Since Serbia will lose Kosovo once and for all in few weeks time, somebody has to give them a sweetener. As a strategy, it is quite transparent: Serbia loses Kosovo, but the EU gives Serbia a special status to get over the hangover.
The news today goes that the GAERC agreed the following:
“The European Union proposes a Political Agreement on co-operation between the European Union and Serbia, providing a framework for making progress on political dialogue, free trade, visa liberalisation, and educational co-operation, to be signed on 7 February 2008.”
To make one thing clear, this is not the signing of full Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) that Rupel and Rehn advocated. It is much less in practice and even less in terms of symbolism. The 27 Ministers managed to find consensus on a Political agreement dealing with: political dialogue (?), free trade (benefits the EU), visa liberalisation (only starting the dialogue on gradual liberalisation) and educational co-operation (already exists in certain aspects). Not much new, but a much needed “confirmation” of the Slovenian ambition to advocate closer cooperation EU-Serbia. Some material for headlines, but more important is the story behind, let’s speculate.
First, decisions on this matters require unanimity. On Serbia there never was one it seems. Especially the Netherlands and Belgium have resisted the signature of the SAA, claiming that full cooperation with the ICTY in the Hague is needed first. For them this meant Radko Mladic in prison. The rest was ready to be a bit more flexible and deal with Serbia with softer hands, because of two reasons: elections in Serbia (with nationalist Nikolic winning the first round) and the forthcoming declaration of independence in Kosovo. Since something had to be achieved, Rupel was looking for the way in the middle and managed to get the Political Agreement that will be signed on the 7th of February.
Timing also seems important. The recently leaked note from internal meetings of the Slovenian Foreign Ministry and the US Administration described the realpolitics behind the timing of both Kosovar independence and EU action. Kosovars are ready to wait just until 3rd of February to declare independence in order not to damage the position of Tadic even further. The EU (and the US) also followed the same logic and tried to delay the Kosovar declaration with diplomatic means. At the same time the EU, and Rupel at its head, also started to look for sweet pills for Serbia. To help the position of Tadic and to prepare the ground for Kosovar independence. Let’s draw the time line then: 3rd February elections in Serbia, 7th of February EU signs Political Agreement with Serbia, 12-13 February Kosovo declares independence.
I don’t envy the position of Rupel in the past few days. His ambition was to give a signal to Serbia and it was strongly contested. He got the Political Agreement that amounts to nearly nothing but headlines in newspapers. But this seems to be just enough. While it might be counter productive, since experts will know this is no SAA but a PR stunt, it might as well just help Tadic to reaffirm his EU credentials and thus boost his chances to win the 2nd round of elections.
All in all, it will influence little Serbia’s stand on Kosovo.