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From Bucharest to Belgrade: Mladic, human rights, and EU accession

By Alfie Stroud.

If it is true that Ratko Mladic has been happily pottering around the same cobbled Belgrade hills among which his erstwhile commander-in-chief, Radovan Karadzic, was found peddling alternative medicines last year, Serbia's hopes of quick accession to the EU have been dashed. That is, they will have been, as long as the enlarging EU retains the courage of its convictions and remains serious about its moral credentials.

In 2007 the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU swelled it to 27 members. Before its 60th birthday, the early accession of Balkan states including Croatia and FYR Macedonia, alongside, perhaps Turkey, should see it break the 30-member barrier. The Union has gone through a period of rapid growth and consolidation in the last 10 years greater, arguably, than during any of its previous 40 or so. It has also, arguably, failed fully to think through and qualify its expansion in terms of its implications for the Union's ethical standards and political aspirations.

The Copenhagen Criteria have since 1993 laid down benchmarks for accession in typical triplicate: free markets, desire for integration, and most crucially, the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. These have been the keystone of the EU's Neighbourhood and Enlargement policy; the Directorate-General's statement that "any European country which respects the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law may apply to become a member of the Union," doesn't adequately convey the degree of proselytising engagement that has motivated EU growth, particularly behind the drawn Iron Curtain.

But the process has been so fast, compounded by the urgent impetus added to the process by NATO's expansion and worsening relations with Putin's Russia, that questions were raised even as 25 became 27 about whether Bulgaria and Romania really were fit and ready. The University of London's Dr Bernd Rechel, for instance, accused the expanding EU of only superficial monitoring of minority treatment in candidate states, as well as showing a simple lack of concern for human rights, particularly as a question of public attitudes. Internal standards were insufficiently codified, and outward-looking expertise was absent. Bulgarian judicial corruption worried democrats. Inadequate aircraft safety standards drew threats to pen-in their planes. But above all, Romania's ambiguity about its poor record of protecting the Roma minority challenged the integrity of one of the EU's very pillars – a human rights-respecting common Foreign and Security Policy. Yet Brussels had already drawn up its treaties, and accession could take place on either 1st January 2007, or 1st January 2008 – no later.

Rightly, the EU has trumpeted the huge benefits membership of its club is already bringing to member states which, as they joined, had average salaries below 20% of the EU average, but among the highest GDP growth rates on the continent. The EU claims to be about more than growth, though. Which Romanians and Bulgarians, or Turks and Croatians, will benefit from growth if we fail to be strict in our expectations of their governments' social policy standards? Will the Roma? Which Bosnians will trust Brussels if the EU lets Serbia accede before it has delivered on its promise to deliver Mladic.

The Neighbourhood and Enlargement Directorate-General talks of the "mutual trust needed for EU membership". Quite right. But it would be a more effective stick against candidate countries were so many existing members not routinely betraying that trust on precisely the issues most pressing in the EU's back yard. In November 2006, weeks before the advent of the EU-27, The Guardian reported on the terrorizing of a group of Roma living in Ambrus, Slovenia. This year, Berlusconi's government in Italy has required the fingerprinting of all Roma, while he has welcomed the neo-fascist supporters of Alessandra Mussolini into his new Popolo della Libertà. Dr Rechel's suggestion that the EU's internal standards may be as lacking as its neighbourhood negotiations has never looked truer, at least on Roma relations.

Yet the EU is right to cling to the unique potential its promise of membership has to reform and reshape the whole of Europe into the most just and advanced community on earth. Even now, as Turkish membership approaches, but remains wholly unsecured, the healing balm of the EU ointment is at work in wounded Cyprus.

Serbia's obligation to render justice to its fellow Yugoslavs by turning-in Mladic; may seem a simple box to tick. It in fact, of course, goes with a range of requirements relating to minority rights and the rule of law in the Balkan patchwork, especially regarding newborn Kosovo and the consolidation of a permanent peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But Mladic's capture is the minimum standard – the test of Serbia's seriousness. The encouraging pro-EU government of President Boris Tadic; may protest that it was not in power during most of Mladic's fugitive years, but what faith can we have in its ability to enact and enforce the Copenhagen standards if he still roams free in its elegant capital? The intransigence of Tadic; on Kosovo's independence will, in any case, be a far bigger obstacle to overcome.

The EU must be sincere, and prepared to wait, when it requires stringent standards of its invitees. There is no rush – we are 52 years young. We have more than enough to fix internally, anyway, as Roma rights, the sleepy Treaty of Lisbon, and 43% turnout in the Parliamentary elections prove. Until Mladic; is at The Hague, Serbian accession negotiations should not even begin.