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Dáil Motion to approve terms of EU Serbia Stabilisation and Association Agreement

European Union, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Speech, Europe, 2012

As members of the Committee will be aware, the European Union is founded on the fundamental premise that, after centuries of bloodshed, Europeans should never fight each other again.   While the Union has been a great force for peace and stability on our continent since the Second World War, it failed to live up to its values when conflict broke out in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s.   It is only in recent years that the Union has assumed its responsibilities by accepting that the countries of the Western Balkans are part of Europe and will be part of the European Union.   This commitment to the region has been reiterated by the Union regularly and has been central to building stability, to promoting reform and to fostering reconciliation in the Western Balkans.

The European Union’s Stabilisation and Association Process provides the basis for the Union’s strategic and political engagement with the countries of the Western Balkans in preparation for eventual accession.  

It establishes a progressive partnership, in which the EU offers a mixture of trade access, economic and financial assistance and contractual relationships through Stabilisation and Association Agreements.  

The Stabilisation and Association Process helps the countries in the region build their capacity to adopt and implement EU law, as well as European and international standards.   Each country’s progress towards the EU ultimately depends on its individual efforts to comply with agreed political and economic criteria.

Despite many difficult political and economic challenges, the story of the Western Balkans over the last decade has been one of reform, democratisation and reconciliation.  In recent years we have also seen a significant improvement in relationships across the region, including between Serbia and its former adversaries Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.   

As political leaders and people in the region will tell you, EU assistance and the prospect of accession are central to positive developments.   

We now need to push forward to ensure that the positive momentum created by the EU perspective remains a motivating force for the governments and peoples of the region.  

I do not underestimate the challenges facing the EU or the countries of the Western Balkans, as they individually make their preparations and undertake painful reforms to join the Union.  There can, of course, be no question of an easy pass to accession.   But neither we, nor the countries concerned, should be daunted by the task.  

Just as the generation of the 1980s brought the newly emerged democracies of Greece, Spain and Portugal into the EU, and the generation of the 2000s took in the former Soviet-dominated states, I believe that the integration of the countries of the Western Balkans is one of the great political opportunities and challenges for the Union in this decade.  

A significant step was taken last month with the conclusion of negotiations with Croatia on accession to the EU.  It is expected that Croatia will become a Member State in 2013. 

I believe Croatia’s accession will act as a beacon in showing the way forward to all of the countries of Western Balkans.  It also demonstrates unequivocally the Union’s determination to follow through on its commitment to the region. 

While we welcome this important milestone, we must at the same time stay focused on the steps remaining for the other countries in the region on their path towards the EU.   This is why I am here today.  With the exception of Serbia and Kosovo, all the other countries of the Western Balkans have concluded Stabilisation and Association Agreements with the EU.   Now is the time to take this step with Serbia.

Negotiations on the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Serbia began in 2005.  The negotiation process for the Agreement was delayed on a number of occasions until the EU was satisfied with Belgrade’s level of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.   The Agreement was signed in April 2008. 

Taking into account Serbia’s progress in meeting all of the required criteria, EU Foreign Ministers decided in June 2010 to submit the Stabilisation and Association Agreement to national parliaments for ratification. 

Last October Serbia applied to become a member of the European Union. The application was referred to the European Commission for its opinion, which is expected to be given this autumn in the context of its annual enlargement report. I await that report with interest and will be guided by its content.  The key question which must be addressed by the Commission in its recommendation is whether Serbia has done enough to merit candidate status and to decide on a possible date for the opening of negotiations. The European Council will return to this matter at its December 2011 meeting following analysis of the Commission’s opinion.

As Deputies may be aware, full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is a condition of the Stabilisation and AssociationProcess. It is also a condition of Serbia’s progress towards EU candidate status and eventual membership of the European Union.  

In Serbia’s case, the requirement for continuing full cooperation with the Tribunal is included in the text of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Serbia under Articles 2 and 4.  This will be closely and critically monitored.

In this context, I am sure Members will join with me in welcoming the news of the arrest by the Serbian authorities of the last remaining indictee - Goran Hadzić [Ha-ditch].  I look forward to his swift transfer to the Tribunal in The Hague.  The arrest of Hadzić, together with that of Ratko Mladić on 26 May, is a crucial development in terms of addressing the appalling atrocities committed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s.   These arrests demonstrate the commitment of the Serbian authorities to fully meeting their obligations in terms of cooperation with the Tribunal.  Their trial in The Hague can only help to further the cause of true reconciliation in the region.

I think it is important today that we acknowledge the substantial progress Serbia has made in the decade since public outrage led to the overthrow of the Milošević regime in 2000. 

In addition to the reform and democratisation which we have seen within Serbia, Belgrade has demonstrated a real willingness to deal with the difficult and cruel legacy of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990’s.  These moves have helped to change relations in the region. 

In March 2010 Serbia’s parliament passed a significant declaration condemning the Srebrenica massacre and apologising to the families of the victims.  In the same month, Bosnia and Herzegovina appointed an Ambassador to Serbia after a three-year hiatus.  This was followed by a joint visit by the Serbian and Croatian Presidents to Bosnia and Herzegovina in July 2010 to attend a commemoration to mark the 15th anniversary the Srebrenica massacre.  In November 2010, the Serbian and Croatian Presidents paid a joint visit to Vukovar in Croatia, where the Serbian President laid a wreath to commemorate the victims of the three-month siege in 1991.

In a further sign of how far the region has come, earlier this month President Boris Tadić paid the first official visit by a Serbian President to Bosnia and Herzegovina.  

While there, President Tadić reiterated Serbia’s support for Bosnia and Herzegovina and for its territorial integrity.  

It is important that we acknowledge the courageous -- and often fraught -- decisions Governments in Belgrade have made to move the country away from its dark past.   It is also important that we the signal to the people of Serbia that we recognise the positive direction their country has taken in recent years.

We know from our own experience of the Northern Ireland peace process that those who take risks for peace require outside recognition in return if they are to maintain credibility at home and build on their reforms.   The progressive and reformist parties in Serbia now need to be able to demonstrate that the direction they have taken the country will result in tangible progress on the path towards the EU.  

I therefore propose that this Committee recommends to the Dáil that it approve Ireland’s ratification of the EU’s Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Serbia. 

In taking this step today, I believe we are playing our part in advancing the peace process for the Western Balkans.  By granting a Stabilisation and Association Agreement to Serbia we do not forget or neglect the continuing need to confront and seek justice for the horrors of the past.  Rather we are providing ourselves with the instruments to address these and at the same time move ahead with reconciliation.