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Serbia’s EU bid is over: five reasons why

Once a frontrunner candidate for membership, Belgrade’s current interests will no longer be catered for by EU accession.

November 23, 2020 - Alejandro Esteso Pérez - Articles and Commentary

Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz together with the President of Serbia Alexandar Vučić Photo: Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs flickr.com

Serbia received full candidate status for membership of the European Union in 2013. Since then, the country has made modest efforts to tackle its deeply-rooted democratic shortcomings. As of 2020, Serbia’s situation looks frightfully bleak. The current government in Belgrade, effectively under the tight control of President Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), has transformed the domestic state of affairs to a point where EU membership is no longer in the country’s political or economic interest. Five key issues point in this direction.

First, the state-led public crusade against the EU. Serbia’s clear lack of progress toward integration has only encouraged many member states to become more sceptical to enlargement. The EU’s ongoing identity crisis has motivated countries like France and the Netherlands to seek a slower approach to accession for candidates from the Western Balkans. Subsequently, membership has lost its appeal and support among Serbian citizens. President Vučić has made sure to take advantage of this feeling among the public. This is clear regarding the management of COVID-19, with the leader encouraging a narrative of victimisation and bitterness against Brussels. It is therefore not surprising that EU enthusiasm in the country has dropped and only half of Serbians would vote in favour of joining the EU. At the same time, 40 per cent of the population already believe that China is the country’s biggest aid donor.

Second, the elephant in the room: Kosovo. The ongoing conflict over Serbia’s former province, which declared independence in 2008, remains a major problem for the government in Belgrade. In the context of the current EU-brokered diplomatic dialogue between the two countries, Serbia will not give up its demands over Kosovo. Far from conceding to international hopes for mutual recognition and the normalisation of relations, Serbia’s cause is bound to remain its most important political issue. Both Serbia and Kosovo find themselves on the road to EU accession, and in 2013 they even pledged to not hinder each other’s integration process. Even though Serbia’s progress towards EU membership is conditional upon its improvement of relations with Pristina, its claims regarding Kosovo will continue to take precedence over any potential prospects for accession.

Third, the country’s visible rejection of EU values. In Serbia, the rule of law, the independence of the media, the running of free and fair elections, and the preservation of civil liberties are all under severe political pressure. There are few signs that this will improve anytime soon. Vučić has tightened his grip over domestic institutions and the SNS is well-entrenched in all parts of the state apparatus. Activity in Serbia’s National Assembly is likewise tightly controlled by the SNS, whose parliamentary majority (188 out of 250 seats with no real opposition) remains effectively uncontested. As things currently stand, Serbia’s deterioration in terms of rights and freedoms is hardly compatible with EU criteria, which demand democracy, human rights and the rule of law as prerequisites for membership.

Fourth, the emergence of new friends and foes. For some years now, the Serbian president has very publicly stepped up Serbia’s relations with new actors like China, which recently pledged large infrastructural investments and a considerable inflow of capital into the national economy. This, alongside its traditional friendship with Russia, has placed Serbia in a privileged spot between East and West. Increasing assistance from Beijing and a strong political backing from Moscow—two allies that will not demand domestic compliance with human rights standards in return for support—provide Belgrade with a wide array of alignment options often detached from Brussels. In the meantime, the EU, in hopes of maximising its political leverage, remains a reliable provider of funds for Serbia.

Fifth, the political realisation that the status quo is well worth preserving. While Belgrade continues to convey the illusion that the country is committed to working toward EU membership, thus benefitting from Brussels’ funding, Vučić and his government advance on their campaign to capture the state. Serbia can additionally flirt with Russia and China and use this as a bargaining chip with the EU. At the same time, the current diplomatic impasse over Kosovo works to Serbia’s advantage. As long as Serbia does not soften its demands, Kosovo’s own accession to the EU will remain frozen.

Alejandro Esteso Pérez is an International Research Fellow at Group for Legal and Political Studies in Prishtina, Kosovo.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position his employer.

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