Is EU Membership the Only Option for Serbia?
Granting Serbia the status of candidate country for the European Union in March 2012 became an important moment in the post-Yugoslavian history of this country while at the same time also leading to a series of further questions and concerns.
June 11, 2012 - Natalia Zielińska - Articles and Commentary
Officially, Serbia’s pro-European path to integration started in 2008 with the signing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. After the Milošević authoritarian regime, there was huge support for EU integration. All the parties in the Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition, which took power when Slobodan Milošević’s regime came to an end in October 2000, accepted that EU membership was not only a goal but also a priority for Serbia. It was seen as a return to Europe.
The situation changed dramatically after Kosovo’s proclamation of independence and the recognition of Kosovo by the majority of EU member states. The pressure from Brussels to resolve this issue as a main condition for further Serbian integration with the EU has undermined public support for the whole process. Melting public enthusiasm coincided with a continuation of individual discourse in foreign policy by strengthening relations with Russia and other non-EU countries. The latest version of the Serbian government’s effort “to not put all their eggs in the EU basket” involves strategic partnerships that Serbia began to conclude with individual countries. In 2009 then-President Boris Tadic said that Serbian foreign policy rests on four pillars: the United States, Russia, China and the EU.
Moreover the economic crisis has weakened the position of Europe and the example of Greece has highlighted a number of risks associated with integration into EU structures. From the beginning, it was clear that integration with the European Union does not constitute the sole pillar of Serbian foreign policy, but definitely it used to be the preferential one. Although in light of the current election, the pro-European position seems to have returned to the top of political priorities. The question which remains is if EU membership is the only option for Serbia? Or maybe by strengthening external relations, Serbia has a chance to play the role of hegemony in Central and Eastern Europe without the support of Brussels?
The leading arguments demonstrating the diverse interests of Serbia and the European Union is the problem of Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2008. Serbia and the Serbian minority in Kosovo, did not recognize it, neither did several EU member countries such as Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Romania and Cyprus. Serbs believe that Kosovo is the historical cradle of Serbian culture and the Serbian Orthodox Church.
A great cost
Since 2008, the Serbian public opinion is convinced that the loss of Kosovo would be a great cost. Also the position of the political elite in the country is clear. Started during the previous presidential campaign discourse Boris Tadic, under the slogan “both Europe and Kosovo” continues. Just before the granting of candidate status to Serbia, the Serbian president emphasized his position, declaring in Belgrade that his country would not recognize the independence of Kosovo and that it should not be made a requirement for a Serbia wishing to enter the European Union.
Bilateral negotiations are currently focused around solving individual problems such as energy supply, telecommunications and the normal functioning of the EU mission EULEX, and NATO forces in Kosovo. The importance of the situation is strongly affected by the emotional aspect and the great importance of public opinion focused on the problem. There are also plenty of suggestions for alternative solutions. But as long as Brussels does not define a clear position on Kosovo, it cannot require specific steps of Serbia. And in Serbia, EU integration is not equivalent to the loss of Kosovo. Thus the calculation of gains and losses related to the issue of Kosovo and further integration remains an open question.
Another important question is the prospect of further EU enlargement. There are some voices from France or Germany, which argue that the EU integration of Croatia in 2013 will be the last in the next decade. As analyst Jovan Teokarevic indicated, this situation can create another new phenomenon in Serbia which he called “accession fatigue”. Teokarevic stated, “It is specific to the people of Serbia and elsewhere in the ‘EU waiting room’ who are dissatisfied and disappointed with the results of the EU accession process so far. They feel that they have sacrificed too much, believing in more or less empty promises that the EU is just around the corner and that it will turn the present hell on earth into a paradise. And they blame both the Union and domestic EU proponents for this disappointment.”
On the one hand there is a risk of isolation of Serbia in Europe, but on the other hand creates a strong foundation for cooperation with other countries in a similar position, such as Turkey, or which is in opposition to the EU, like Russia. This process is already visible. Turkey has followed a more proactive foreign policy towards the Balkan region in recent years, and along with its strong political and diplomatic ties with these countries, it contributes to regional peace and stability.
Moreover, the future entry of Croatia into the EU offers to Serbia a range of economic benefits that may affect the current situation. For Serbia, the Croatian withdrawal from the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) is important in the sense that Serbia now remains the strongest player in CEFTA and that will increase its role in the regional market. Furthermore, manufacturers from Bosnia who now export food to Croatia have no certificates to export to the EU, putting additional pressure on the surrounding markets, including the Serbs, allowing for the Bosnian companies to streamline its products elsewhere.
In the energy field, there are also important factors indicating the recent activities of closer cooperation between Russia and Serbia. In 2009, the Serbian government approved a draft agreement with the government of Russia on cooperation in the oil and gas industry, under which the oil company Gazprom is a strategic investor, with a large refinery in the Balkans and almost a monopoly of the oil market in Serbia. Taking into consideration close Serbo-Russian cooperation, a question which remains is how it would be influenced if Serbia would be an EU member state, which means it would have to adopt the European Common Policy on energy. It is also worth noting that the latest project to build Russian military bases in Serbia. In the end, however, we come back to the main topic: Kosovo. Even talking about Russian-Serbian relations, one cannot avoid such an important factor as the Kosovo question. The fight for territorial integrity of the state is one of the main determinants stimulating Serbian engagement in relations with Moscow.
A decrease of support
In a certain detachment from the political-economic analysis of benefits to Serbia under the current position to the EU, an issue that needs to be analysed is public support for further integration among the Serbian society. What is observed in recent years is a decrease in the share of people that support Serbian integration with EU. According to the Balkan monitor, the amount of people who find Serbia’s membership in EU a “good thing” dropped from 61 per cent of respondents in 2006 to 58 per cent in the year 2008. Furthermore, the tendency seems to continue: the latest poll from early spring 2011 shows a considerable drop in support for future EU membership in Serbia. Only 57 per cent of respondents were in favour of EU membership – the lowest number in the last ten years. Another 18 per cent said they would vote against joining the EU, while 20 per cent said they would not bother voting at all.
To summarize, although granting Serbia the status of a member country is a clear progress in Serbia’s pro-European political discourse, an analysis of current events enhances a certain sense of futility of further integration of Serbia into the EU. First of all, the Kosovo problem remains unresolved, and this aspect of Serbia’s position is unequivocal, and the only thing that still binds Serbia and Brussels on this subject is the Spanish and Cypriot veto.
On the basis of the Kosovo problem arises strong Russian-Serbian cooperation, which is strengthening institutionally and economically. Moreover, the economic crisis of recent years contributed to the decline in the attractiveness of the EU in the Balkans. This results in a gradual loss of public support for the idea of integration. The initial enthusiasm among the Serbs fell sharply by European support for Kosovo and continuing pressure from Brussels for the normalisation of Serbian-Kosovar relations.
Postponing Serbia’s status of a member state, Europe is “pushing Serbia into the arms of the Russians”, in the words of one of the leading Serbian politicians. At this point, Serbia needs to strategically focus on what is most beneficial for the country. Although membership in the European Union temporarily lost its value, the road to the EU determines the path of development.
Moreover, as rightly observed by a Serbian diplomat, “integration is necessary because it allows the reforms Serbia needs.” Continuing the integration process and for the implementation of European legal standards, while building strong relations with other countries, creates enormous opportunity for Serbia’s development. Is the European Union the only path for Serbia? Certainly not the only, but rejecting the prospect of membership is also not an alternative for Serbia.
Natalia Zielińska is a graduate student of European Studies at the University of Wrocław and an intern at the Croatian Ministry of Regional Development.