BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will resume talks with Serbia on closer ties next week after Belgrade boosted cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the EU’s executive said on Thursday.
The EU suspended talks in May 2006 on a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step towards eventual membership of the bloc, after Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica broke a promise to arrest top genocide suspect Ratko Mladic.
However, Serbia last week arrested another former top Bosnian Serb general, Zdravko Tolimir, also charged with genocide over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, opening the way for relaunching the talks on June 13.
“Next Wednesday we will hold the next round of talks on this important agreement, which will bring concrete trade and economic benefits for Serbia,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said in a statement.
He told Reuters the agreement could be signed by the end of this year provided Serbia cooperates fully with the Hague tribunal, leading to the arrest of Mladic and other remaining indictees.
European Commission Chief Jose Manuel Barroso added: “I welcome the progress Serbia has made since the establishment of the new government in its cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.”
Serbia hailed the move, which came after chief U.N. prosecutor Carla del Ponte gave the green light during a visit to Belgrade.
“This is fantastic,” Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic told Reuters, minutes after the EU announced its decision.
“I am exceptionally happy that in less than a month of the new government, and with the help of our allies, we have managed to restore ties with the European Union,” said Djelic, appointed on Thursday as chief negotiator with the EU.
Rehn said Belgrade had taken other steps to coordinate its security services and conduct effective searches in the hunt for the fugitives.
“Serbia has also undertaken several other actions which Carla may be able to report more once she comes back,” he said after a telephone call with the U.N. prosecutor.
The EU move comes at a sensitive time as the U.N. Security Council considers a plan for the final status of the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo, with Belgrade adamantly opposed to independence for the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian region.
But Rehn stressed there was no direct trade-off between the EU talks and a Kosovo solution.
“We don’t expect that Serbia would make concessions on Kosovo because of the EU accession process,” he said. “However, we want to encourage Serbia to change the terms of debate from the nationalist past towards a European future by showing we are ready to proceed once Serbia is ready to take the steps.”
He urged the Security Council to reach an early agreement on Kosovo, saying: “Further lengthy delay would not be to the benefit of Kosovo, Serbia or Europe.”
Ties between Brussels and Belgrade have improved since the formation last month of a new pro-reform coalition government under Kostunica, which declared its commitment to full cooperation with the Hague tribunal.
Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander, and former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, are the two top war crimes suspects still at large from the 1992-95 Bosnia war.
Additional reporting by Gordana Filipovic in Belgrade