Among the leadership of the European Union and its member states, there was a certain uniformity about the reaction to the arrest of Ratko Mladić – words of welcome and calls for a swift transfer to The Hague tribunal.
Those words of welcome, however, were essentially about the arrest itself and while most confirmed that finally getting Mladić into custody meant the removal of a significant obstacle to Serbia’s hopes of European Union membership candidate status, there was no general rush to put the country on the fast track.
Within the EU, there are those who have called for greater certainty and set dates for Serbia’s EU progress. Bulgaria is among these voices, and earlier in 2011 Greek foreign minister Dimitris Droutsas named 2018 as his target date for Serbia to join the EU.
But the country has lived through a stop-start process before, and in some respects, is still doing so.
The process of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU, seen especially in the context of the Western Balkans as a gateway to membership of the bloc, had its long-stalled moments, precisely on the question of fugitive war criminals that Belgrade seemed (inexplicably?) incapable of finding.
Previous steps forward also have taken time to yield results. Radovan Karadzic, another big-name war crimes suspect, was arrested in July 2008. It was only in December 2009 that other rewards flowed, such as visa-free access to the Schengen zone for Serbians and, in the same month, the photo opportunity of Serbia handing over its formal application for EU membership.
Questions are being asked whether the EU will want to see Goran Hadzic in custody too or will quietly agree that Mladić will sufficiently symbolise the long-demanded co-operation of Belgrade with the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) for the former Yugoslavia. One signal on this issue could emerge when ICTY chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz tables his latest report on the co-operation question.
At a May 26 joint news conference with Serbian president Boris Tadić in Belgrade, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton praised the arrest of Mladić, but also added in her opening remarks a reference to Serbia’s dialogue with Kosovo.
The Kosovo issue is fraught with complexity. Serbia is adamant that it will never recognise Kosovo as independent, and the EU is – in theory at least – "status neutral" about the country, given that five out of 27 members of the bloc have declined to recognise Kosovo. For all that, with legal provisos, the EU sees Kosovo as a potential candidate country.
Officially, recognition of Kosovo is not a requirement for Serbia’s EU prospects. But good neighbourly relations are, and much can happen between now and Droutsas’s date of 2018 – good and bad.
In his reaction to the Mladić arrest, European Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle said: "Today, Serbia has fulfilled an important international obligation. Tomorrow, in this new momentum created, work must intensify on reforms which are key to enable the (European) Commission to present a positive opinion later this year."
It cannot be forgotten that Serbia has a great deal of work to do to move towards EU standards and law. In the latter case, a lot of paperwork and voting lies ahead of the country as it seeks to harmonise its laws with that of the bloc.
Serbia also has its domestic issues, of no small significance.
The fact that many Serbians see Mladić as a hero may not do lasting damage. After all, there were demonstrations in favour of Karadzic, which faded away and may return only when the ICTY pronounces its verdict.
It was, however, striking that one of the voices needed to call for calm after his arrest was that of Mladić himself.
Aside from the pure politics of strongly-felt emotions about the main figures in the Balkans wars of the 1990s, more current is the political turbulence that has arisen from economic hardships that have followed the global economic and financial crisis.
In recent months, anti-government protests fuelled by anger about the economy have brought tens of thousands of people out into the streets of Belgrade in support of opposition calls for early elections.
The government, however, has been unbending in the face of such calls. A major reason that it gave for not wanting early elections is that this could slow progress towards EU accession. In turn, it might be suggested that a psychological victory such as securing official candidate status and even dates for negotiations could be a handy fillip for the government. Serbia would hardly be alone in the recent history of South Eastern Europe in using an EU trophy to lure votes – in effect, recruitment through the long-term prospect of open EU labour markets.
At a meeting on May 20, prime minister Mirko Cvetkovic and European Commission President Jose Barroso discussed "what has been done and what remains to be done in the coming months so that Serbia could get candidate status for EU membership," Cvetkovic told a news conference.
Serbia and Brussels, after all, at the moment have more to talk about than just the prospect of EU accession. There has been concern in the EU, and some of its member states in particular, about abuse of the schengen visa concession.
At the same meeting, Barroso was specific about some of the points that Belgrade had to address. These included, he said, economic reforms, judicial reform, and the fight against organised crime and corruption.
In the wider context, it also cannot be forgotten that in the EU, some countries appear to have significantly lost their appetite for expansion of the bloc, and on issues like organised crime and corruption, it is doubtful that there would be any collective enthusiasm for a repeat of the process that followed the admission of Bulgaria and Romania – a Co-operation and Verification Mechanism to assist progress towards EU standards in justice and home affairs.
These are issues that may in the long term prove quite as complex as arresting war criminals, and again – given the experience with Bulgaria, in particular, arresting organised crime figures but showing little capacity to convict them – the EU may now be skeptical about high-profile arrests that lead nowhere.
Belgrade had to deny that the arrest of Mladić was a public relations move.
"We are not making calculations when and how to deliver," Tadić told journalists who asked him whether the arrest had been timed to coincide with a visit by Ashton. "We are doing that because we truly believe this is in accordance with our law. This is because of our people, Serbs. This is because of moral dignity of our country and our people. But this is crucially important in terms of reconciliation between people that are living in the region of South Eastern Europe’s former Yugoslavia."