25 April 2016

Serbia's slow EU path

Serbia’s Progressive Party government has declared the country’s April 24 parliamentary elections to be a plebiscite on admission to the European Union. The ballot, says Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, decides “whether Serbia wants to be a modern European country, and whether it wants the future or the past.”

The Progressives gained almost half the national vote, easily surpassing other contenders. Vučić looks poised to form a new coalition with the Socialist Party—which captured a 12 percent share—in order to try and secure a two-thirds parliamentary majority. Despite Vučić’s resounding victory, however, Serbia’s path towards accession will be long and arduous as it remains dependent on EU consensus.

Even in the most Europhile member states, the refugee crisis has sparked a wave of populism, nationalism and protectionism amidst fears of being swamped by foreigners. The uphill struggle even to harmonize trade with the EU was on display during a recent referendum in the Netherlands, where voters opposed an economic association agreement with Ukraine that Kyiv initially offered Brussels in November 2014. The Dutch vote demonstrates how fractured and resistant the EU has become to pursuing further enlargement.

Belgrade aspires to join the EU for two fundamental reasons: to improve economic conditions in Serbia, which is suffering recession and high unemployment, and to avoid being left behind in the region as a “gray zone” of insecurity, especially after Croatia’s 2013 admission.

Serbia’s progress in meeting EU standards has been noteworthy under the Progressive government, despite the party’s ultra-nationalist pedigree. Having begun accession talks with the EU in December 2013, Serbia now faces the protracted and contentious process of closing all 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire—the most important step in gaining a formal invitation to enter the Union.

Eight of these 35 chapters are being opened this year, and several demand standards that Belgrade will find difficult to achieve. In particular, chapters on the judiciary and fundamental rights, on justice, freedom, and security, on financial control, and on the environment will be particularly onerous. EU representatives will also be closely monitoring Serbia’s degree of media freedom and the extent of official corruption.

Just as EU member Slovenia proved to be both a partner and an obstacle to Croatia’s membership until several bilateral disputes were settled, Croatia may now adopt the same position toward Serbia. For Zagreb, Serbia’s EU entry boosts regional security and can enhance regional economic development. It would also help pull Belgrade away from Russia’s embrace and contribute to stitching together a more functional Bosnian state.

On the other hand, Serbia’s aspirations present a valuable opportunity for Croatia to extract concessions from its southern neighbor as a condition for approving its EU accession. Zagreb demands that Belgrade deliver on several basic conditions such as full respect for minority rights—including those of Croats in Serbia—unhindered cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal, and the annulment of a Serbian law on universal jurisdiction for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. Croatian officials point out that Serbia cannot act as a mini-Hague in the region, especially in dealing with the wars that Belgrade initiated.

Serbian officials insist they need a new mandate to pursue the difficult reforms necessary for EU accession, and the resounding election victory should boost talks in several acquis chapters. Ultra-right parties have limited traction in the country, and opposition to EU integration has minimal backing. Recent attempts by the opposition to create a united front against Vučić have clearly failed.

Belgrade has also resisted Moscow’s meddling. The Kremlin opposes NATO and EU membership for Serbia, viewing both institutions as a threat to its own alliances. The EU has onerous legislation, oversight and transparency that endangers Russia’s opaque and corrupt business model. Although the Serbian government maintains close relations with Russian officials and panders to “Slavic solidarity” in order to gain economic benefits, it has no illusions that the Eurasian Economic Union can be a viable alternative to the EU, regardless of Kremlin enticements.

For Serbia, the process of closing the acquis chapters is likely to take several years. But even then, its path into the EU is not assured because each member state must ratify the entry of any aspirant. And with a possible EU fracture on the horizon following Britain’s referendum in June, and other countries seeking to loosen their bonds with Brussels, Serbia’s membership in the EU could be indefinitely postponed.

One further obstacle blocks Serbia’s path to the EU: relations with Kosova, the subject of the final acquis chapter. EU officials view “normalized” relations between Belgrade and Prishtina as a prerequisite for both countries to join the bloc, possibly leading to mutual recognition as independent states. Such a condition could be used to deny Serbia EU entry even if it meets all other requirements.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis.