EU lures Serbia with pre-membership deal

( dpa ) - European Union foreign ministers Monday threw their weight firmly behind Serbia's pro-Western forces ahead of a hotly-contested presidential vote with the offer of a new pre- membership deal.

The Political Agreement on Cooperation with Serbia, a compromise solution reached by ministers and EU officials after intense talks in Brussels, covers visa-free travel for Serbs, a free trade agreement and money to help more Serbs study in Europe.

"I hope very much that the sentiment that we have when making this offer will be corresponded by the majority of the people of Serbia, who we believe are interested in working with the EU, with being part of it and sharing its values," said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

The political agreement would be signed on February 7, just four days after Serbs are due to vote in the second round of a presidential election that sees pro-European incumbent Boris Tadic trail behind Tomislav Nikolic, the ultra-nationalist candidate.

Serb Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, a member of the pro-Tadic Serbian government, hailed Monday's agreement as a major step towards Serbian EU membership.

"Today is one of the most important days on the path of full EU membership for the Republic of Serbia.

"This is an invitation to Serbia to walk through the door that is now open for Serbia to enter the European family of nations. The people of Serbia will now have a chance to decide, democratically, whether they want to walk through that door," Jeremic said.

The minister portrayed the February 3 vote in Serbia as "a referendum on Europe", saying he was convinced that a majority of Serbian voters would back Tadic.

Olli Rehn, the EU's enlargement commissioner, said the EU was ready "to move forward, as long as the Serb citizens are ready to move forward and choose their European future."

Though officials denied that Monday's offer was aimed at influencing Serbian public opinion ahead of Sunday's round of voting, Italian deputy foreign minister Famiano Crucianelli noted that the EU offer would "lose any meaning" were Nikolic elected.

Serbian patriotism has been fuelled by the prospect that its predominantly ethnic-Albanian province of Kosovo is about to declare independence from Belgrade.

Most EU member states are ready to recognize an independent Kosovo. But in a sign that the EU is also divided over the issue, foreign ministers Monday shelved plans to discuss the deployment of a civilian mission that would take over the province's administration from the United Nations.

Ahead of the meeting of the EU's 27 foreign ministers, top EU officials had urged member states to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) - a more comprehensive deal paving the way for membership talks - as a "strong signal" of support for pro-EU forces in the Western Balkan state.

However, the Netherlands and Belgium blocked that suggestion, saying that they would only sign the SAA when Serbia handed Bosnian Serb wartime leader Ratko Mladic, and other wanted war crimes suspects, over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

"The Serbs should adopt certain European norms and values. They should transfer suspect war criminals to the UN tribunal," said Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen.

Germany's Steinmeier acknowledged divisions within the 27-member bloc, saying: "The SAA won't be signed in the coming days."

But he insisted that the EU should not stop trying to lure Serbia with the prospects of EU membership.

"We want to send a signal that our hand is stretched out to Serbia," Steinmeier said.

Steinmeier was backed by his British colleague, David Miliband, who said: " Serbia's future does lie with the EU."

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