BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders will offer Serbia a fast-track route to joining the bloc in a bid to soothe Balkan tensions over Kosovo’s push for independence, a summit draft showed on Friday.
But Belgrade bristled at suggestions the move was designed to compensate it for the looming loss of the majority Albanian province. Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic insisted any such trade-off would be out of the question.
“It would be an indecent proposal, and European leaders are decent people, they have not made such an offer,” Jeremic told reporters in Belgrade on Friday.
A day after signing a treaty to end a long institutional stalemate, EU leaders switched focus to challenges posed by the Balkans — a test of the EU’s hopes of strengthening its foreign policy clout — and by globalization and immigration.
The leaders were due to say Serbia should be offered an accelerated path towards EU entry once it meets existing conditions to sign a first-level agreement on closer ties.
“(The European Council) reiterated its confidence that progress on the road towards the EU, including candidate status, can be accelerated,” a draft copy of the summit communique obtained by Reuters said.
It also said talks on the breakaway Serbian province had been exhausted, the status quo was untenable and a settlement of Kosovo’s future status was essential for Balkan stability.
Pro-EU moderates in Belgrade want EU candidate status by the end of next year, a timeframe EU Enlargement Commission Olli Rehn said last month was ambitious but feasible.
“ON A PLANE”
Normally, it takes up to two years for Brussels to grant candidate status to an aspirant after signing a Stabilisation and Accession Agreement (SAA), the first rung on the EU ladder.
The signing of an SAA with Belgrade has been held up by its failure to transfer Bosnian Serb wartime general Ratko Mladic to a U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Hague on genocide charges.
Outgoing chief war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte urged EU leaders in Belgium’s Le Soir not to be lenient on Belgrade and to maintain firm pressure on it to deliver indictees.
“I am stupefied by the attitude of France, Germany and Italy who want to soften their position. As decisions must be taken by unanimity, I am counting on Belgium and the Netherlands to remain tough,” she told the newspaper.
There was no word from French, Germany and Italian officials but a Dutch diplomat said its national position had not changed.
“The foreign minister has said that they shouldn’t sign the SAA until Mladic is on a plane to the Hague,” the envoy said.
A handful of EU states — Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia and Romania — remain reluctant to recognize an independence declaration expected early next year.
In addition to foreign policy issues, the leaders were due to address public concern over the strain on European job markets from immigration and cheap imports, issues on which the EU hopes to focus now that the new Lisbon Treaty has been inked.
Replacing the more ambitious constitution abandoned after French and Dutch voters rejected it in 2005, the Lisbon Treaty preserves most of the key institutional reforms but drops contentious symbols of statehood such as a flag and anthem.
EU leaders hope the treaty will streamline the bloc’s structures to cope with enlargement after it opened its doors to 12 mostly ex-communist states in 2004 and 2007. Critics say it will curb national sovereignty and put more power in Brussels.
Separately, EU leaders named former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez to head a new “reflection group” to discuss the long-term future of the EU on issues ranging from enlargement to climate change and regional stability, diplomats said.
Ex-Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and the chairman of mobile phone company Nokia Jorma Ollila were named as two vice-chairs of the panel due to report in June 2010, they said.