After Mladic's Arrest, the E.U. Whispers Sweet Nothings to Serbia

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In this handout image released by the Serbian government Thursday, May 26, 2011, Ratko Mladic enters court in Belgrade.

In the years following the Cold War and the hemorrhaging of Yugoslavia, Serbia earned the dubious distinction as Europe's pariah state, widely viewed as a brutal aggressor in the Balkan wars. But the past decade has seen Serbia change tack, steering away from prickly nationalism, and the arrest on Thursday of General Ratko Mladic, Europe's most wanted war-crimes suspect, represents a key moment in the country's journey to global respectability. It also, crucially, acts as a fillip to Belgrade's bid to join the European Union — and as the news of Mladic's capture spread, politicians from across the Continent signaled their readiness to finally welcome Serbia to the European family.

Speaking at the G8 summit in Deauville on Thursday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy described Mladic's arrest as "a step toward integration of Serbia into the European Union someday soon," while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "This is at once the best basis for the region achieving reconciliation and a future in Europe." Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the arrest was "a test of the great democratic maturity of Serbia, which gets closer to Europe and the European Union," and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said that Serbia's European prospects are now "brighter than ever."

After a decade-long manhunt, Mladic will now be transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, which charged him with genocide for his alleged role in the slaughter of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995. While Mladic was at large, Brussels made it clear that Serbia's hopes of joining the E.U. were non-existent. To some, his capture testifies to the effectiveness of European leverage and underlines the E.U.'s soft power: by holding out the carrot of accession, the E.U. induces meaningful change in would-be members. "The E.U. had obviously made this a condition for progress on Serbian relations," says Greg Austin, vice president at the EastWest Institute, a global, action-oriented, think tank based in Brussels. "The arrest is a highly symbolic marker that Serbia is now a normal state prepared to enforce European values."

Indeed, as Serbia's pro-Western President Boris Tadic announced the arrest on Thursday, he made it clear that he now wants faster accession to the E.U. Aptly, Mladic's capture occurred on the eve of the release of a report on Serbia's cooperation with the ICTY, which will now be rewritten, and on the day E.U. Foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton was in Belgrade. After news of Mladic's arrest broke, Ashton herself indicated that Brussels would meet the challenge laid down by Serbia's president. "People will be thinking about Serbia and its future in the European Union," she said. "We will approach that with renewed energy because of today."

Tadic's sense of urgency reflects the undulating mood in Serbia, whose path to the E.U. is occasionally offset by spasms of obstreperous, old-style nationalism. Belgrade has taken big steps in recent years: former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic, the wartime president of the Bosnian Serbs, were both sent to The Hague; and Tadic last year went to Srebrenica on the 15th anniversary of the massacre, to pay tribute to the victims. But there have been setbacks too, notably over Kosovo, which declared itself independent in 2008: 12 years after the war in the former Serbian province, Belgrade still claims Kosovo as its own. And on the day of Mladic's arrest, Tadic boycotted a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Poland because the Kosovar president was also attending.

But Tadic has to balance his E.U. aspirations with popular concerns that Serbia is conceding too much to the West. He will remember that former Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated by loyalist Milosevic militia in 2003 for handing Milosevic to ICTY. And many Serbs still see Mladic as a patriot hero: a poll taken three weeks before his arrest found that 51% said they would not hand him over to The Hague. Next year, the president faces a tough election against a resurgent nationalist opposition, and he will want a payoff for his cooperation with the E.U., says Rosa Balfour, a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank. "Tadic will want Serbia formally confirmed as an E.U. candidate country by the end of the year, and [he will want to be] given a date for prospective membership," she says. "Tadic is sending very important signals, and Brussels should not be deaf to them."

Yet, Serbia's E.U. membership is not a given. The country joins Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Turkey, Iceland and even Kosovo as would-be members. So far, Slovenia is only former Yugoslav republic that has managed to join the bloc. And within the E.U., there is growing resistance toward adding new members, a sentiment known as "enlargement fatigue" following the recent accession of a dozen mainly eastern European countries. There are even suggestions that Mladic's 16 years on the loose have been used as a convenient cover for the E.U. member states who want to slow down enlargement.

But for the moment, Serbia can bask in the global praise it is getting for nabbing the man behind one of the most grisly periods in recent European history. "Serbia realized it had to choose between the past and the future," says Heather Grabbe, Brussels director of the Open Society Institute, the pro-democracy foundation. "This was such a big hurdle to clear. Serbia's accession now becomes a question of when rather than if." Mladic's arrest enables Serbia and Europe to turn a page. How long it will take to finish the book is another matter.