Serbia’s path to EU membership: a never-ending journey

An op-ed by IE fellow Ana Curic, Belgrade

The European Commission’s latest report on Serbia was published last month, in October. And while the Serbian government is trying to sell it as a success (“best report in the last years”), it doesn’t actually have much to be proud of. Serious issues are raised in the report, over and over again. “Limited progress” and “further efforts needed” are much-used phrases, but given the situation in the country, even these sound optimistic. After two years of “frozen negotiations”, the EU has finally mentioned a way forward with its “benchmarks in clusters’.

Serbia’s long journey to the European Union officially started when the country submitted its request for membership in 2009. The idea of joining the EU arose even earlier, in 2003, after the fall of the authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milosevic and the country’s shift to democratic values. Back then, an overwhelming majority (72%) of the Serbian population was in favour of joining the Union. Twelve years later a lot of things have changed — and not for the better. 

In reality, Serbia is even further away from the EU than at the very beginning, as it is no longer considered a democracy. The latest reports published by Freedom House score the country poorly, marking it as a hybrid regime thanks to the leadership of the Serbian Progressive Party and its president, Aleksandar Vucic. 

If you fail at the very basics, how is it even possible to overcome the many other challenges? And how many more years will this take? 

Citizens’ feelings regarding the EU are divided, with half of the population supporting membership. According to the latest research done by the Institute for European Affairs in March 2021, only 48.9% would vote “yes” in a referendum to join the EU today. Another study conducted by The Belgrade Center for Security Policy in 2020 found that 51% of citizens do not support Serbia’s membership in the Union. Just remember, in 2003, the support for the EU was at 72%. 
How did this happen? Quite a few things should be taken into account, such as governmental behaviour, never letting go of “our friends from the East”, insisting on “how big their support is”, pro-governmental media reports that distort reality and, I would say, a definite lack of understanding of EU values. 

Although we have the very clearly proclaimed goal of entering the EU, the party in power holds tight to its relations with China and Russia. The arguments for collaborating with these powers are: their support for Serbia’s position in the Kosovo issue, and balance in geopolitics. But I am afraid that other things, more deep and dangerous, are included in this as well, such as sympathy for a limited democracy, or even the absence of it.

Kosovo is regularly seen by Brussels as the biggest obstacle in our path towards EU membership. Serbia still officially considers Kosovo to be a part of its territory even though it proclaimed its independence in 2008.

So, it is a problem, but not the only one. We must not forget the whole list of things that keep us far from our European ways, both internationally and internally. 

Looking from the inside, we officially harmonise laws with the EU, but when it comes to implementation, there is nothing to be proud of. Despite proclamations about the “fight against corruption”, there are no big cases of high corruption before judicial authorities. But this doesn’t mean we are free of corruption. According to the latest report, it is even worse than earlier and Serbia was reminded once again to increase its efforts against corruption.

Investigative journalists have published complex schemes of evidence for different cases, including acts perpetrated by public officials, but these have gone completely ignored. Even the simple cases with very clear documents of wrong-doing saw little by way of judicial action. 

This failure to fight corruption is noticed outside the country. In early 2018, Serbia found itself on the FATF’s blacklist of countries with a high risk of money laundering. It was the only European country on the list. Not to mention that its non-existent media freedom has made it drop to 93rd place on the Reporters Without Borders’ ranking. This was also noticed by the EC, which pointed out that “verbal attacks against journalists by high-level officials continued and cases of threats and violence remain a concern.”

So, it’s easy to just promote Serbia’s efforts to join the union and the EU’s support for it. But in reality, you get a completely different picture when you experience the cost of these never-ending negotiations and meetings, without opening any new chapter in the last two years. The whole process is not progressing — or at least not in a good direction. This is a problem as it affects people’s lives here; people facing obstacles and a lack of opportunities.

Not getting closer to EU membership might not even be that big of a problem if our country were able to offer us an alternative. An alternative that would contain civil liberties, political rights, media freedom, the rule of law and a dignified life. But we are lacking all of this, and that’s why we don’t have the luxury of being alone. And so, our eyes are still looking in the direction of the EU. 

What’s worrying is that almost half the respondents in a 2017 study saw Russia as an alternative partner to the EU. I would not even like to think about it. I remember when Putin visited Belgrade in January 2019. The ruling party’s preparations for his visit did not look democratic. Authoritarian values were screaming out that day, something that people should be really afraid of. By now, we should have been over these strong authoritarian tactics where the whole nation humbly bows in front of the leader. History should have taught us what that actually means — that nationalist hype is dangerous.

Luckily, we have our EU goal clearly articulated, and I would really like to believe we are still on that path, even if we are progressing at a slow pace, with a lot of obstacles.

Meanwhile, the EU is, for some reason, strangely blind to Serbia’s internal corruption. But turning a blind eye to the issues in the country —  issues recognised by various international institutions — and looking with the other eye only at the Kosovo issue is not helping at all. 

It is disappointing how the EU negotiators choose to ignore our autocratic leader and party in power while insisting on the importance of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. We need other dialogues as well, and EU officials should be aware of it. 

Experts from the Center for European Policies recently proposed a new model of entering the European Union — one which would bring the EU to Serbia faster and Serbia to the EU slower. They suggest an EU membership model in which Serbian citizens would be able to use the privileges that come with it, which would also mean faster harmonisation with the EU, but without veto power as a country in EU institutions for some period. They see this as a compromise to speed up this never-ending story of negotiations.

But, would it be something that the Serbian government would accept after all? The cost of distancing itself from China would be high for the current regime. We build highways with support from the Chinese, and along with that, we are building national debt with all these expensive Chinese loans. Collaboration with China is based on the memorandum of interstate cooperation, and also on a shared lack of love for democracy and transparency.

It’s therefore uncertain whether the Serbian regime will sacrifice this relationship as the cost is high. Especially if it means embracing all the responsibility that an EU membership requires, without having power in the institutions.

Anyway, at the beginning of October 2021, at the EU summit atop a hill near Kranj, in Slovenia, leaders from the European Union and Western Balkans once again proclaimed their commitment to the integration of the countries from this region to the EU, as that is where the Balkan belongs. So, let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 12 years.