EU’s Hardline Serbia Stance Falters

In her new commentary on the EU and Serbia in Die Zeit (Europe threatened by Humiliation), Andrea Böhm posits the sort of counterfactual you would expect:

Suppose there were relevant indications that the leader of an Islamic terror-group, responsible for the murder of several thousand people, were hiding himself in a high-rise apartment in a European capital. How long would it take before a multinational army of secret services and investigators would come swarming to observe every garbage-dumpster, illuminate every floor, and if necessary evacuate half the building? Two months? Three weeks? Ten days?

But what is really at issue is not Islamic terrorists at all, it’s rather the high Serbian government officials responsible for war crimes in the Yugoslav Wars of some 15 years ago, in particular General Ratko Mladic. According to Ms. Böhm, he’s clearly somewhere in Belgrade and it shouldn’t be too difficult to find out exactly where. Yet not only is no one going after him (nor after the other wanted Serbian official, one Goran Hadzic, former leader of Serbs in Croatia – him I did not know about), but there has just been alarming signs of weakening in what had been the EU’s insistence that Serbia would be allowed no further progress along the road to becoming an EU member-state until these two fugitives were delivered up to the UN Yugoslavia Tribunal in The Hague.

Granted, the Serbs are still far from EU membership, just as they seem equally far from agreeing to do anything to deliver up Mladic and Hadzic. Nonetheless, EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg last Monday did agree to at least open Serbia’s formal application process. And that is the “humiliation” Ms. Böhm speaks of in her piece’s title – Europe once again exposing itself as a softy on the world stage by unilaterally climbing down from what had been it’s ironclad insistence on seeing the two fugitives in jail at The Hague (actually, at Scheveningen, if you want to be technical about it) before the Serb government would even be allowed inside the door. What happened to the Dutch? she wonders – they were the ones single-handedly (well, with occasional Belgian support) holding out on this insistence. She speculates that it all began to seem too much like some sort of Dutch “obsession” – an irrational thirst for revenge against the Serbs for the humiliation suffered by the “Dutchbat” troops who had been assigned to protect the civilians who were massacred at Srebrenica in 1995, so that the Netherlands government finally became self-conscious and too embarrassed to insist anymore.

In point of fact, the situation seems quite a bit more subtle than all that, as explained in a recent entry on the Economist’s “Charlemagne” weblog (in English, of course). Why did the EU foreign ministers budge in the first place? Because they wanted to reward the Serbian government for recently agreeing to meet with leaders of Kosovo, which ordinarily Serbia regards as a renegade break-away province (much as the People’s Republic of China views Taiwan). More to the point, it seems that they made that concession yet at the same time they didn’t: at least according to the Economist analysis, unanimity among governments (meaning the renewed potential for a Dutch veto) will be necessary again soon for Serbia to make any further forward progress.

EU officials are skillful at this sort of sleigh-of-hand, whereby they seem to give something away while in reality doing nothing of the sort (while still retaining the option of giving it away again sometime in the future, should that be viewed as necessary). But all this is hardly to Ms. Böhm’s taste. The EU needs to remember, she writes, that it bears a share of the blame for the horrors of the Yugoslav War; it happened in its own backyard, it was Europe’s big geopolitical test – and, of course, it failed it, having to rely in the end on American diplomacy and military power to rein in both Serb depredations in Bosnia and Croatia and the Milosevic government’s attempt to ethnically cleanse Kosovo. So fancy procedural games for her won’t cut it – much better a full-court military/police press, as if tracking down some Islamic terrorist-leader were what was at issue.

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