Who is left dreaming the European dream in Serbia?
The accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union (EU) has been ongoing for eighteen years, since the distant 2003, when all countries were promised the prospect of membership. In the meantime, only Croatia became a member in 2013. Serbia started negotiations in 2014, but today it seems further from the EU than it was five years ago. And yet, membership and negotiations did not come up during the previous elections, even opposition parties are not trying to overemphasize their commitment to the EU. The most ardent supporters of the European Union seem to be civil society organizations, whose enthusiasm, however, does not reflect the positions of the people. At the same time, the EU is losing credibility in the eyes of many, due to the often vague and ambiguous messages sent to politicians and civil society representatives. Therefore, the question is - to what extent is the idea of enlargement still present in Serbia?
Europeanization without democratization
Serbia was granted candidate status in 2012 and since the opening of accession negotiations in January 2014, 18 of the 35 chapters have been opened, two of which have been temporarily closed. The so-called Enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans of 2018 declared Serbia, alongside Montenegro, a leader in the enlargement process, providing the prospect of membership by the year 2025. The latest report of the European Commission from 2020 states that "the overall pace of negotiations will continue to depend on the reform of the rule of law and the normalisation of its relations with Kosovo." Two negotiation chapters were opened in 2019, while none were opened in 2020.
According to the Nations in Transit annual report by Freedom House, Serbia was classified as a "partially free" instead of "free country" in 2019, while in 2020, this organization defined Serbia as a "transitional or hybrid regime". In other words, according to the criteria of this organization, Serbia has ceased to be a democracy. The same report states that since 2012, when the Serbian Progressive Party came to power, political and civil rights have deteriorated, with increasing pressure on independent media, civil society and the opposition. The outcome of the last elections held in June 2020, which were boycotted by most opposition parties, is a parliament with no opposition. Although the census has been reduced from 5% to 3%, in addition to national minority parties, only three parties have managed to cross the census and are now all in power.
Still, during that same period i.e., since 2012, Serbia has made progress in the process of EU integration. One of the consequences of that process is that democratization and Europeanization no longer go hand in hand, according to a group of authors on Sbunker. Namely, in the last 20 years, these two terms have been used as synonyms for political, economic and social transformation of the Western Balkans. The enlargement policy was perceived as an instrument that should gradually approximate countries to the standards of the European Union, so as to enable their membership in the EU. The example of Serbia shows that this is no longer the case. The country is making headway in the EU process, but is becoming less and less democratic and free.
Criticism of the EU integration process and its effect on the countries of the Western Balkans is already a topic addressed by researchers. Therefore, having in mind the limited space, my focus here will be the question of who is dreaming the European dream in Serbia? In other words, having in mind the unfavourable political situation in Serbia and the accession process that is not producing the desired (or promised) effects, can we expect greater pressure put on decision makers to secure EU membership or citizens distancing themselves from the idea of so-called European Serbia? On the other hand, EU’s sentiments towards Serbia are also not clear, and the promise of membership does not seem as firm as it used to be.
Is there a majority support for EU membership in Serbia?
Public opinion polls conducted in Serbia and the region in recent years indicate the division of Serbian society in regards to the EU and the accession process. In relation to other countries in the Western Balkans, the citizens of Serbia show the highest level of scepticism and negative attitude towards the European Union and are divided in relation to the benefits of membership. Although these surveys are incomparable in a strictly methodological sense, due to the use of different research methods, they still show a bigger picture and provide an overview of a society that seems to remain somewhat flabbergasted in terms of its foreign policy aspirations.
The Ministry of European Integration, or the Office for European Integration as it was named until 2017, has regularly conducted public opinion polls since 2009 on citizens' support for Serbia’s EU integration process. The last one was conducted in December 2019. The results indicate that since May 2011, support for membership has varied between 41% and 55%. The biggest support was recorded in 2009, which is related to obtaining visa liberalization. However, according to the same survey, it is positive that citizens recognize the need for reforms regardless of EU membership, mostly in the areas of combatting corruption, healthcare, human rights protection and justice.
In October 2020, a regional IPSOS public opinion poll was conducted, supported by the European Fund for the Balkans, which shows that EU membership in Serbia is supported by slightly more than 60% of citizens. There are noticeable differences between Serbia and other countries in the Western Balkans, where that support is at least 80%. Also, every third respondent in Serbia believes that Serbia will never join the EU, once again making it the country that shows the most reservations about the accession process.
Similarly, the Balkan Barometer, an annual regional survey of the Regional Cooperation Council, states in its analysis for 2019 that only 32% of citizens in Serbia think that EU membership would be a good thing. The only country where less than half of the respondents have a positive attitude towards membership is Bosnia and Herzegovina with 47%, unlike, say, Albania where that percentage is 86%.
So, when it comes to internal reforms, citizens see the need for them, especially in the domain of the rule of law and the fight against corruption. However, the long process of joining without the desired effects creates fatigue and heightens suspicion towards membership and the European Union itself.
Whose foreign policy should Serbia follow?
The Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) recently conducted a survey on citizens' attitudes towards foreign policy actors, which sheds light on Serbian citizens’ stance towards the EU compared to other actors.
For example, the authors of the publication state that 40% of respondents perceive Russia as Serbia's best friend, while 72% believe that Russia's influence in the country is positive, which is an increase compared to the research conducted in 2017. Similarly, the better part i.e., 57% of respondents believe that Serbia should coordinate its foreign policy with Russia and China. Although Serbia is a candidate for EU membership, only a fifth of respondents believe that the state should harmonize its foreign policy with Brussels.
China ranks second as Serbia's closest friend, and "75 percent of respondents mistakenly believe that China provided the most assistance to Serbia in the fight against the pandemic, even though the European Union (EU) was actually the biggest donor."
When we talk about EU membership, every tenth citizen sees joining the EU as a priority in foreign policy. More precisely, the public is convinced that the three most important foreign policy priorities are the preservation of Kosovo as part of Serbia (24%), strengthening cooperation with neighbouring countries and strengthening cooperation with Russia (20% each).
The results show that the government does not (correctly) recognize the pressure from the citizens to get closer to the EU in key foreign policy issues. The unresolved issue of Kosovo and the role of individual members in building a state in Kosovo, among other things, play a major role in the negative attitude towards the EU.
EU and Serbia – There cannot be a stick if there is no carrot
Although imminent perspective of membership was promised in 2018, it cannot be said that the European Union, i.e., all of its members, really extended a hand to Serbia (and the whole region) and that the union remained firm in its position. In the region, the EU is no longer perceived as a credible partner that keeps its promises and has a predictable and coherent enlargement policy and attitude towards potential future members. So, on one hand, there was the French “Non” on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia, after the latter changed the authoritarian government and reached an agreement with Greece on changing its name. On the other hand, although with growing authoritarian tendencies and proven violations of the independence of institutions, Serbia has formally progressed in the accession process and until recently was praised as a leader in the region, despite the "elephant in the room" - the unresolved Kosovo issue.
The intensified activities of China in recent years, and especially during the first wave of the coronavirus, have not gone unnoticed in Brussels. In addition to Russia, China is a relatively new global player present in the Balkans, whose interests in Serbia are seen as contrary to the interests of the EU. However, the EU i.e., Member States do not seem to have an adequate response to the new geopolitical situation. The principle of "stick and carrot" no longer has an effect, because the carrot (i.e., membership) has become uncertain. In addition, as the above figures show, the EU has never managed to win the hearts and minds of the citizens of Serbia.
The end of the European dream?
When talking about the attitude of Serbian citizens towards the European Union, the term silent pro-European majority often comes up, together with the fact that the current leader of the Serbian Progressive Party and President of Serbia managed to come to power only after he left the nationalist and anti-European Serbian Radical Party and embraced the idea of membership of Serbia in the EU. However, the fact is that today there is neither enthusiasm among citizens nor a clear consensus in society regarding membership.
The discouraging political situation in the last few years does not contribute to a greater commitment to join, it can even be said that it does the opposite. The EU, on its part, also does not offer a clear path and response to the current stalemate in the accession process, although it is obvious that none of the states will become members in the next ten years. The situation is best described by paraphrasing a well-known sentence from the beginning of the war in former Yugoslavia: they pretend to want to let us in, and we pretend to want to get in.
This blog is published as part of the regional blogging initiative “Tales from the Region”, led by Res Publica and the Institute of Communication Studies from North Macedonia.
*Katarina Tadic has eight years of experience working in the civil sector in Serbia and the region. She graduated from the Faculty of Political Science and then collaborated with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation office in Belgrade. For three years she was employed as a researcher at the Center for European Policies for Public Administration and Public Policy Reform. Thanks to a Chevening Fellowship from the Government of the United Kingdom, she completed her Master's Degree in Public Policy Research at the University of Bristol. She is currently working as a program manager at the European Fund for the Balkans in Belgrade. You can follow her on @katarinatadic_