By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Brussels
Croatia's EU entry talks could be delayed over Gen Gotovina
The European Union has postponed membership talks with Croatia, which were planned to start on 17 March, because Zagreb has failed to deliver a fugitive general indicted for war crimes to the UN tribunal in The Hague.
Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, in Brussels for a last-ditch attempt to save the talks, insisted his country was fully co-operating with the tribunal.
The unprecedented move to postpone membership talks shows the EU's
determination to come to terms with the legacy of the Balkan wars.
Croatia is rapidly running out of time, but Mr Sanader did his best to appear confident at a hastily-called press conference in Brussels.
He said his country was prepared and ready to start EU negotiations.
But he insisted the Croatian authorities could not apprehend Gen Ante Gotovina because he was no longer in Croatia.
"This is the only and full truth," Mr Sanader said.
Too little, too late
But the tribunal's chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte sees things differently.
In two recent reports to the EU, she claimed the general - who faces charges of killing 150 ethnic Serbs and expelling 150,000 others during a 1995 offensive against Serb forces - was still "within the reach of the Croatian authorities".
Ms Del Ponte also said that, in the past, Croatia had spied on her investigators and passed on the information to the fugitive general.
On Tuesday, she informed Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who will chair the meeting of EU foreign ministers, that no new element had intervened to change her assessment that Croatia was not fully co-operating with the tribunal.
Many in the EU agree with her.
They dismiss Croatia's decision to freeze Gen Gotovina's assets on Monday as too little, too late.
At a meeting of EU ambassadors on Tuesday, only Croatia's neighbours - Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia - argued in favour of starting negotiations as planned.
Many others, led by the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, said they could not give Croatia the green light.
Germany and France agreed that talks could not start under these conditions.
Any decisions on EU membership talks have to be taken by consensus and there is none on Croatia.
One diplomat said Zagreb had underestimated the EU's resolve and was now paying the price.
Putting pressure on
For the EU, the credibility of its entire policy in the Balkans is at stake, just as the war crimes tribunal has issued its last indictments.
"This is the moment of truth," an official said. "We have to show that we are serious about conditionality."
The EU has promised all Balkan countries eventual membership provided they respect the Dayton peace agreements, signed 10 years ago, including full co-operation with the UN war crimes tribunal.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said the policy was clearly working, as in the last 10 weeks one indictee per week had been transferred to The Hague.
They include several Serbian generals and the prime minister of Kosovo.
The message to the Balkan countries is that they have a real European future ahead, Mr Rehn said.
But "that requires that each and every country has to fulfil its international obligations, especially those related to the rule of law, which is the most fundamental European value", he added.
Standing next to Mr Rehn, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said his country would not be discouraged if EU talks with Croatia were postponed until full compliance with the tribunal was proven.
The message was very clear, he said: "We understand that Serbia and Montenegro cannot even think about approaching the EU until transferring to The Hague all indictees."
Mr Draskovic's statement contradicts Zagreb's claims that the delay of EU talks would send a negative signal throughout the region and boost Euroscepticism.
EU foreign ministers are expected to approve a framework for negotiations with Croatia to show that talks can start as soon as full co-operation with the war crimes tribunal is proven.
The decision to postpone scheduled talks is unprecedented, but EU officials deny it could have serious consequences.
They point to Slovakia, which was denied accession talks in 1997 because of the authoritarian rule of its then Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, but still managed to catch up with the other former communist countries that eventually joined the EU last year.
Croatia is generally considered better prepared economically than the existing candidates, Romania and Bulgaria, so if it begins entry talks by the end of this year, it could still become an EU member in 2009 or 2010.