BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Serbia’s arrest of wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is a milestone on its road to joining the European Union but Belgrade must go further to reap the full benefits, EU ministers said on Tuesday.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the arrest of the man wanted for planning and ordering Europe’s worst atrocities since World War Two showed Belgrade was cooperating fully with the U.N. war crimes court in The Hague.
That was the precondition set by EU states in April for implementing a deal on closer ties with Serbia, putting it fully on track to ultimate membership of the bloc.
But others noted that Karadzic’s wartime military commander, Ratko Mladic, also wanted for genocide, was still at large.
“Things will be easier, but let’s not prejudge anything,” said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose country holds the presidency of the 27-nation EU. “Karadzic has been arrested but Mladic has not.”
Arriving to chair a meeting of EU foreign ministers due to discuss rewarding the new pro-European government in Serbia, Kouchner said that when word of the arrest reached a preparatory session on Monday evening, “everybody jumped in the air.”
“We’ve been waiting for this for 13 years,” he said.
Separately, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer hailed Karadzic’s arrest and urged Belgrade to ensure his swift extradition to The Hague and to step up pursuit of Mladic.
“A prosperous and stable future for the Western Balkans can only be built on justice and reconciliation,” he said in a statement.
The EU signed a long-delayed association pact with Serbia in April but vowed not to ratify it or unlock its trade and aid benefits until all 27 member states agreed that Belgrade was complying fully with the U.N. war crimes tribunal.
EU leaders also raised the prospect of Serbia being formally recognized as a candidate for EU membership, the next rung on the ladder, possibly as early as the end of this year.
But ties are also complicated by the standoff over Kosovo, whose Western-backed secession in February was angrily opposed by Serbian politicians across the spectrum.
In a statement issued after talks in Brussels, EU ministers merely reaffirmed past statements that “Serbia can accelerate its progress towards the EU, including candidate status, as soon as the necessary conditions are fulfilled.”
Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, who along with his Dutch counterpart insisted on conditions being set, said he would now like to see Mladic behind bars, and future ties would depend on whether Belgrade extradited Karadzic to The Hague.
“Certainly the (Serbian) government hasn’t pronounced itself on this matter. Let’s wait for a couple of hours to see what happens,” he told reporters at a trade meeting in Geneva.
Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said the EU would want further proof of Belgrade’s cooperation and even Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, a firm backer of Serbia, said it was only “half-way to full cooperation”.
Karadzic and Mladic were indicted for genocide over the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which some 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim males were murdered and bulldozed into mass graves.
U.N. Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz welcomed Karadzic’s arrest, announced by Serbian President Boris Tadic, and said the date of his transfer to The Hague would be set soon.
Solana said he was “almost certain” Brammertz would now declare Belgrade in full cooperation with his tribunal.
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, arriving in Brussels for talks, said Serbia wanted to be a “cornerstone of the EU”.
But in a barbed reminder of Belgrade’s anger over Kosovo, he said Serbia would continue to defend what it sees as its sovereignty over the mainly ethnic Albanian territory.