Serbia-Montenegro formally opened talks on Monday for closer ties with the European Union, a step toward eventual membership, but was warned that any bid to join the bloc depends on the arrest on top war crimes fugitives.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn and top Serbian and Montenegrin officials proclaimed at a ceremony in Belgrade the start of the talks for a "stabilization and association agreement," considered a stepping stone to full membership.
Rehn said the day marked a "new phase" between the EU and the Balkan country, and that once reached, the agreement will "deepen our relationship and create a contractual bond" that would benefit the country's citizens.
But he warned the talks "could be suspended at any time" if the country failed to hand over to the U.N. war crimes tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands, two top war crimes suspects, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic.
"If there is at some point a situation that Serbia-Montenegro is not cooperating fully, then we should not hesitate to use the suspension clause," Rehn told reporters. "But I trust the leaders will not let that happen."
The EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg granted on Oct. 3 the mandate for the negotiations, after assessing Serbia-Montenegro had made enough progress in reforms in its efforts to join the 25-member bloc to start the pre-membership agreement talks.
Belgrade acknowledged the importance of handing over Mladic and Karadzic, still at large 10 years after Bosnia's war ended and believed to be hiding in Serbia, the Balkan union's larger republic.
"No one has the right to believe there can be a way forward unless we meet fully the last remaining responsibly toward The Hague tribunal," said Svetozar Marovic, Serbia-Montenegro president.
"We must not miss a single day, week or month ahead so that we can conclude this agreement in the interest of our future," Marovic added.
Belgrade hopes to successfully conclude the agreement by mid-2006 and has set its sights for EU entry for 2012.
On photo: EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn.