The theory that Ratko Mladic was resigned to his extradition and prosecution for war crimes and would probably go quietly was dented a little today when his lawyers lodged an appeal to Serbia’s war crimes court against the decision to extradite him to The Hague, on the grounds of ill-health.

Nonetheless, there’s no reason to expect the appeal to take up much time. It’s in no one’s interests to have Mladic hanging around in captivity in Belgrade, and since freeing him is pretty much unthinkable it makes sense to let the international tribunal worry about him. And if he is really as sick as is now being claimed, he will be no worse off in a prison hospital in the Netherlands than in Serbia.

Certainly the political interest of the Serbian government of president Boris Tadic demands that the issue go away as quickly and completely as possible. The weekend’s nationalist demonstrations against the arrest showed that many Serbs still regard Mladic as a hero, not a war criminal, and have a quite different vision of their country’s destiny than the modernising, pro-Western one that Tadic has pursued during his seven years in office.

As the BBC’s Tim Judah put it, Tadic “will surely have derived deep satisfaction from wrong-footing” his nationalist opposition, who can’t afford to either praise or condemn Mladic’s arrest. But there are no votes to be won in the arrest and extradition either. The best the government can hope for is to put it behind it quickly and move on to other things.

Tadic and his prime minister Mirko Cvetkovic now have a clear agenda for the future: to be accepted as a candidate for European Union membership, to extract some sort of commitment from the EU for early or rapid negotiations, and on the back of that triumph to hold early parliamentary elections and renew their mandate for further liberalisation.

That may not be easy, because the EU has a lot else on its plate and is unlikely to be enthusiastic about Serbia. Expansion to the East is out of fashion, and in this case there is a ready-made excuse for not moving matters forward, namely the unresolved dispute over Kosovo — another issue Tadic would like to see go away, but which unfortunately doesn’t lend itself to a simple Mladic-like solution.

But for the EU to shunt Serbia to the back of the queue would be extraordinarily short-sighted. Geographically, it makes no sense for Serbia to be out of the Union; it already borders three members, and Croatia’s accession will make that four. The events of the 1990s, rather than a reason to treat the Balkan countries sceptically, actually show the importance of integrating them into the European framework.

The proximity of the two events made comparisons with the death of Osama bin Laden inevitable, as if they represented alternative ways to deal with war criminals. But of course Mladic’s capture bears no analogy to anything the United States might have done; rather, the proper comparison is to imagine that the Pakistani government had discovered bin Laden itself (perhaps by asking its secret service), arrested him and sent him off to the US for trial.

The fact that such a scenario is improbable in the extreme is a sign of what a lawless region Pakistan still inhabits. Since Serbia, by contrast, has done the right thing (for self-interested motives no doubt, but that would hardly be unprecedented), it’s fair and sensible that it should be rewarded by clear moves towards a European future — something that will ultimately run to Europe’s own benefit just as much as that of the Serbs.