Belgium holds the line

Brief recap: about six months ago, the EU suspended candidacy negotiations with Serbia because Belgrade was refusing to cooperate with the Hague Tribunal.

In particular, the Serbian government had stopped even pretending to look for accused war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. As chief Hague prosecutor Carla del Ponte put it, “I’m telling those who still wish to receive me – and fewer and fewer prime ministers and foreign ministers now find the time or interest to do so – that since last October, Belgrade has not been cooperating with the Tribunal at all. Not only has it failed to provide full cooperation – there has been no cooperation whatsoever.”

So the EU shut down candidacy negotiations. Kudos all around, right? Cooperation with the Hague was always a clear prerequisite for negotiations. The EU had made that clear, and the Serbs had agreed. No cooperation, no candidacy.

Then some EU members started getting cold feet.

Why? Well, various reasons. Some countries had ulterior motives. The Italians want a Serbian candidacy because they have a lot of investments in Serbia, and also because they see the Serbs as a balance against the annoying Slovenes and Croats. Several of the new members from Eastern Europe are sympathetic to Serbia, either for historical reasons or simply because they support further expansion.

The Hague tribunal has lost a lot of political support — as del Ponte points out, fewer EU leaders are returning her calls. The Yugoslav wars were a long time ago; many would like to forget about it and leave that ugly history behind. And there’s a push to offer the Serbs concessions in order to sugar the bitter pill of Kosovar independence.

So there’s been a lot of buzz in the last few weeks about a possible deal with a new Serbian government (when they get around to forming one): EU candidacy back on track, in return for Serbia accepting the Ahtisaari proposals on Kosovo.

But maybe not. This week, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht made it very clear that Belgium wouldn’t go along with this.

Why not? Well, one, the Belgians tend to be hardliners on things like war crimes and genocide. For several years they had a law that allowed foreigners to be sued in Belgian courts for war crimes. They’ve always been strong supporters of the Hague and similar international courts.

Therefore, as de Gucht put it, it would be “wrong and illogical to renew negotiations with Serbia… If you start doing that, it means international law is void. We can really not accept that.”

Two, Belgrade’s stubbornness is visibly pissing them off. Some small countries see Serbia as standing up to international bullying and blackmail. The Belgians see a government protecting war criminals from justice.

Three, they think the candidacy-for-Kosovo deal just won’t work. In a swipe at various of his colleagues in foreign ministries around Europe, de Gucht said that many countries had “misanalyzed the situation, believing that by making concessions on the issue of the surrender of Karadžić and Mladić they could get Serbia to take a softer stance towards Kosovo”. The Belgians think this simply won’t happen… any Serb government will take the candidacy, continue refusing to cooperate, and not change its stance on Kosovo a bit.

The Belgians aren’t alone. The Dutch government has made clear that it backs the Belgian position here. When asked if Belgium and the Netherlands could hold their line in the face of pressure to budge, De Gucht said he had been assured by Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen on Monday that the Netherlands was determined not to shift. .”

(If the Dutch and the Belgians are as one on this, then why is the Belgian Foreign Minister out front? Possibly because he’s just a more colorful, in-your-face kind of guy. You may recall that he’s the one who compared the Dutch Prime Minister to “Harry Potter without charisma” a while back.)

Restarting candidacy talks would require the consent of all 27 EU members. So, as long as Belgium and the Netherlands hang tough, Serbia’s candidacy will remain in frozen limbo.

Can this last?

Maybe. Maybe not.

A couple of points. One, the current Belgian government is approaching its “sell-by” date. They’ve been in power nearly four years. Elections will be coming before long. So there may be a new government, with a new foreign minister.

Two, the pressure to reach a deal will only grow. The Ahtisaari proposals will eventually go up to the UN. There will be a lot of people wanting to throw the Serbs a bone and give Belgrade some chance to save face.

It would be nice if Karadzic and Mladic would simply turn up! It would save a lot of trouble all around.

But I very much doubt that will happen.

7 thoughts on “Belgium holds the line

  1. Maxime Verhagen has only been in office for a week so he hasn’t had much time for rabble-rousing yet, I guess. When he was faction leader in parliament for the CDA he did write the following (in 2004):

    “Schröder is one of the least successful and least impressive chancellors since WWII with a short-term opinion-poll policy that has lost Germany its leading role in Europe and hardly lets any structural reforms come to fruition. It is in the interest of the Netherlands that our large neighbour and most important trading partner runs a good economy and is not the old, tired man of Europe”

    I tend to think that a foreign minister’s task is diplomacy and not being colourful, but what the hey…

  2. The Belgians are right in their predictions.

    In fact if a new Serbian government is formed the EU won’t even have to promise negotiatins in exchange for Kosovo. There won’t be an urgent need to ‘make sure the Radicals don’t win the elections’.

  3. There is no peace without justice. And, letting Serbia off the hook would amount to a betrayal of those who have cooperated with the Tribunal, let alone the victims of genocide and other war crimes.

    Serbian politicians have been stupid enough to barricade themselves behind their *current* position and even if the West would like to reward them for a change of position they cannot change their position. To rip any rewards they will need to change their new constitution and step upon a number of parliamentary resolutions which is political suicide. So, good luck to them.

    Yet again, the Serbian politicians choose “sve ili nista” (all or nothing) strategy — the same as Milosevic did before NATO bombing — and the odds are that they will get the latter.

    As far as Belgium is concerned, a big THANK YOU!

  4. I agree with Doug (as usual). Reopening candidacy talks with the EU is not going to get the Serbs to leave Kosovo is even help them to save face. Not only is Serbia likely to continue to oppose independence for Kosovo, the EU is just as likely to come up with some new demand on Serbia. Serbs will, rightly, ask why they should give up Kosovo in return for just more talk. They will have learned some lessons from how the EU has conducted its talks with Turkey.