Kostunica tells EU leaders Yugoslavia is now back in European family


Dr Vojislav Kostunica looked sombre and a little uneasy as he took his place next to the French president, Mr Jacques Chirac, and the prime minister, Mr Lionel Jospin, at the end of this weekend's EU summit in Biarritz. But as he began to speak, first in Serbian and then in almost perfect English, the new Yugoslav president emerged as the undisputed star of the occasion and summed up what, at its best, European unity is all about.

"This confirms what has always been the case; the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is, and always has been, part of Europe, historically, economically and politically. Now we are back," he said.

Dr Kostunica's arrival in Biarritz came at the end of a two-day meeting during which EU leaders wrestled with the minutiae of institutional reform, haggling over issues such as voting strength and the size of the European Commission which, although important for the future shape of the EU, leave most EU citizens cold. But the summit was overshadowed by the violence engulfing the Middle East and the international efforts to arrange a meeting between Israel's prime minister, Mr Ehud Barak, and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mr Yasser Arafat.

The EU's foreign policy supremo, Mr Javier Solana, spent much of last week in the Middle East and in a move that marks an important enhancement of the EU's international role, he will take part in the Arab-Israeli summit in Egypt this week.

Dr Kostunica, who briefed the EU leaders over lunch on Saturday about the political situation in his country, dismissed fears that the former president, Mr Slobodan Milosovic, was poised to make a political comeback.

"If the situation was not becoming more normal, I would not be here today. Slobodan Milosevic is losing influence even within his own party, the Serbian Party of Socialists. If he doesn't have influence there, he doesn't have it anywhere," he said.

Dr Kostunica's hosts were at pains to avoid the tricky question of Mr Milosovic's indictment by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. The new Yugoslav leader promised that Belgrade would fulfil its obligations under international law but he made clear that bringing Mr Milosovic to justice is not a priority for the new government.

"When after a long, dark period we are able to envisage a brighter future I would just like to say that The Hague cannot be our first priority.

"We have to ensure that our economy recovers, to improve our social service, to ease the suffering caused in the past by the sanctions, and by the NATO bombing," he went on.

The EU plans to make €200 million available for emergency aid to Serbia as the impoverished country braces itself for the hardship of a Balkan winter. At a conference in the Croatian capital of Zagreb next month, EU leaders will agree the terms of a more comprehensive aid package for the entire region.

"This meeting will be very important. It represents a link between the EU and the western Balkans and shows that the EU is directly engaged in a concrete way. It will allow people from the EU who live far away from us to get to know the problems that exist on the ground. We are all Europe," Dr Kostunica said.

The Yugoslav leader revealed that he shook hands on Saturday with Mr Solana, a former NATO secretary general, although he admitted that last year's bombing campaign would be "hard to forget". But he insisted that his nationalism was patriotic rather than expansionist and said that he had no ambition to restore a Greater Serbia that would dominate its neighbours.

"I consider myself a Serb in the way that a Pole considers himself a Pole, a Frenchman a Frenchman, and no more than that. My nationalism has never had anything to do with hatred of others," he said.