Serbia 'needs to embrace the EU'

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Rejecting integration with the European Union will damage Serbia's attempt to keep hold of its breakaway Kosovo province, Serb President Boris Tadic said yesterday.

The warning followed a statement by nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica saying that if the EU took over supervision of Kosovo under a Western-backed plan for its secession, the move would "annul" a key EU accord with Serbia.

But Tadic told the Belgrade daily Press: "Serbia's integration with the EU strengthens our country in every way."

"Only a strong Serbia can protect its interests where Kosovo is concerned. Giving up on the European path literally means giving up on Kosovo."

Tadic's Democratic Party is in government with Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, an uneasy alliance that analysts say could be tested if as expected Kosovo's 90-percent Albanian majority declared independence early this year.

Tadic is campaigning for re-election on Jan. 20, in a closely-fought race with ultranationalist Radical Party deputy leader Tomislav Nikolic.

In a written statement on Thursday, Kostunica said the 27-member EU would have to decide when it meets later this month whether to deploy a mission to take over policing and justice in Kosovo, or sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia as the first step to eventual EU membership.

He told Belgrade's Vecernje Novosti daily on Sunday that to send the EU mission without a new U.N. Security Council resolution "would automatically mean that the SAA no longer exists".

The EU has indicated it could invite Serbia to sign the SAA in late January, in what analysts say is an effort to soften the blow of Kosovo's imminent loss and reinforce the more moderate political bloc led by Tadic.

All the major political parties in Serbia oppose independence for Kosovo, which has been run by the United Nations since NATO bombed in 1999 to halt the killing and ethnic cleansing of Albanians in a Serb counter-insurgency war.

Almost two years of Serb-Albanian negotiations ended last month in failure. The major Western powers have indicated they will back a unilateral declaration of independence, after Russia blocked Kosovo's secession at the U.N. Security Council.

"I will never accept Kosovo's independence, and everyone must be aware that any unilateral solution would destabilise the region and have unforeseen consequences," Tadic said.

But he repeated that he would never allow "our youth to ever again go to war".