By Matthew Czekaj
Though little noticed in the press, Serb-EU relations reached a new milestone, recently. On September 23, Serbian Secretary of State for Defence Tanja Miščević announced at a conference on Serbia’s EU integration that around November 10, her country would send Serbian officers to take part in the European Union’s anti-piracy mission to Somalia – Operation “Atalanta.” According to Miščević, Serbian officers will participate on board a French naval vessel attached to the Atalanta mission. In addition, Serb military personnel will assist in training Somali security forces as part of the EU Training Mission in Uganda.
Belgrade’s military cooperation with Paris in Uganda and off the Horn of Africa is the result of a Serb-French diplomatic breakthrough, which culminated in early April of this year. In the first visit of a Serbian Head of State to Paris in about a century, Serb President Boris Tadić and his French counterpart Nicholas Sarkozy signed a strategic partnership agreement cementing France’s support for Serbia’s European integration. In addition to political, economic, and cultural cooperation, the two governments also agreed to defense collaboration and military exchanges as well as discussed joint action in the Atalanta and the EUTM mission Somalia – Uganda. Serbia’s participation in EU military campaigns was made possible by the Balkan country’s formal acceptance on May 26, of the EU’s security procedures for the exchange and protection of classified information, and an official agreement reached between Brussels and Belgrade on June 8, to cooperate in military and civilian missions.
Exact numbers of Serbian soldiers taking part in the EU missions in and off the coast of Africa were not cited in any English-language media sources, and the Serbian Embassy in Washington, DC had not responded before this article was posted. However, the level of Serb participation is likely to remain small. Only a handful of Serbian military personnel are deployed in multinational peacekeeping missions abroad, and the largest contingent currently in place is composed of 45 troops and individuals serving in the United Nations (UN) peace mission to Cyprus. Nevertheless, the Serb-EU military relationship is groundbreaking for another reason: namely, it represents the first time that Serbia has participated in a European led mission abroad; all of Serbia’s previous multinational peacekeeping contributions served under UN missions.
Though an aspiring EU member, Serbia is under no obligation to take part in the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) missions. Its voluntary involvement is a clear effort by Belgrade to associate itself more closely and significantly with Brussels. The EU and its Member States (MS) share this sentiment. EU foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton noted that Serbia’s participation in CSDP efforts is “a step that will bring Serbia closer to the Union” and “a clear sign of mutual trust” (EurActiv, September 30). These remarks were echoed by the British and German ambassadors to Serbia. That is not to say that Belgrade has changed its attitude toward the other major Euro-Atlantic security organization – NATO. Serbia still considers the North Atlantic Alliance a threat, and has no interest in joining, currently bound by a resolution mandating the country’s neutrality toward all military alliances (EurActiv, September 30). Nevertheless, closer EU-Serbia ties are important to Belgrade in all areas, including the military.
Serbia’s willingness to play by Europe’s rules seems to have paid off. On October 12, the European Commission recommended that Serbia receive official candidate status, citing positive reforms taken over the past decade in political and economic spheres. The EU Council of Ministers will formally vote on Serbia’s status in December. Yet, the EU refused to offer a date to begin accession talks until Serbia improved its relations with Kosovo. Indeed, the issue of Serbia’s conflict with Kosovo, which it still considers a break-away province, will likely prove to be a major stumbling block in Serbia’s future accession negotiations with the EU. And the issue has been compounded in recent months by the violence that has been occurring on the Serb-Kosovar border.