Nationalist fears spark EU split over Mladic

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Moves to relax the pressure on Serbia to deliver Ratko Mladic, one of the world's most wanted war criminals, have divided European heads of government ahead of a summit meeting today.

Worried about the risk of Serbia lurching towards nationalism, Italy is leading a group of countries wanting to re-open talks with Belgrade over closer ties with the EU.

The move follows a decision last month by Nato to invite Serbia to join its Partnership for Peace programme which is seen as a forerunner to full membership of the transatlantic alliance.

That decision took some observers by surprise because of Belgrade's failure to hand over General Mladic, who is indicted for genocide and is accused of being one of the masterminds of Srebrenica massacre.

More than 7,000 Muslims were murdered at Srebrenica which was the worst mass slaughter on European soil since World War II. Because of its failure to comply with the demands of the UN's war crimes tribunal in The Hague, the EU last year suspended negotiations with Serbia on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Brussels.

However, Romano Prodi, the Italian premier, plans to raise the issue at today's summit, and can count on the backing of Austria, Slovenia and Hungary. The Netherlands, which hosts the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, is resisting any effort to water down the demands on the Serbs. It is backed by France and the UK.

The Italian plan would not end Serbia's need to comply with the ICTY. Instead Rome wants the SAA negotiations to be resumed on the basis that no new agreement could come into force until Serbia has shown its full compliance.

Diplomats expect a compromise to emerge under which the EU nations agree to "review" the negotiating progress - after elections in Serbia on 21 January next year. One official said that this would not prejudge the outcome either way.

But the pressure for a more lenient approach towards Belgrade reflects growing concerns that Serbia will turn away from Europe.

EU officials are nervous about the reaction among Serbs to a decision next year on the final status of Kosovo. Still part of Serbia officially, but with a population made up mainly of ethnic Albanians, Kosovo is pressing hard for some form of independence.

Such a decision is likely to boost the cause of the nationalists in Serbia.

However, the UN's chief war crimes prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, has used pressure from the EU to secure the delivery of a large number of indictees to The Hague. Last year Croatia helped in the arrest of one of its wanted, ex-general Ante Gotovina. It had been forced to cooperate to secure the opening of EU membership negotiations.

Today's summit is almost certain to endorse a decision to suspend around one quarter of Turkey's EU membership negotiations.

But it is also likely to send a signal to future applicants for EU membership that the European club will be harder to join.

A draft declaration toughens the bloc's language on conditions for membership by scrapping the previous practice of setting far-off target dates by which candidates should be able to join. This reflects fears that the EU has agreed to allow Romania and Bulgaria to the EU on 1 January, 2007, despite worries about their readiness for membership.

The draft communiqué also says the EU's expansion strategy "is based on consolidation, conditionality and communication".

The new strategy foresees tougher scrutiny of reforms, more regular assessments of candidate countries and a greater effort to make enlargement documents public as part of a drive to communicate better with the public.