Serbia’s EU accession process: A geopolitical game
This Clingendael Spectator series ‘Western Balkans In Focus’ gives an inside perspective into the wobbly path of the Western Balkans six (WB6; consisting of Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) in their ambition to join the European Union. In this fourth contribution Igor Bandović explains why despite the fact that the majority of Serbians are in favour of EU accession, the EU is perceived as hesitant and divided. And it no longer is the only player in town.
For Serbia’s accession process, which aims to prepare the country for European Union membership, 2020 was a lost year. No progress or significant reform efforts were portrayed in last year’s report of the European Commission, which tracks Serbia's annual progress on its European path.1
Last year’s report was the most critical and straightforward so far, clearly marking worrying trends in critical areas of EU-demanded reforms: the rule of law, functioning of democratic institutions, lack of media freedoms and other political criteria. As a result, the EU Council decided not to open new negotiating chapters in 2020.2
For the observers and civil society groups in the Balkans, this comes as no surprise. The authoritarian tendencies of the Serbian government have been gradually increasing every year since the ruling Serbian Progressive Party came to power in 2012.3
Moreover, while in 2012 Serbia’s European direction was not questionable, Russia’ and China's increasing presence in more recent years has put its European agenda on the backburner. The country’s declared commitment to the EU is more uncertain than ever.
Where does Serbia stand seven years after the start of the EU accession process in foreign, security and defence policy? What are the key factors determining its directions and how to improve them and align with the EU required reforms?
This article presents the current state of Serbia’s foreign and security policy and its alignment with the EU in light of the government’s strategic decisions in recent years – especially those made in 2020, a significant year to understand where Serbia is heading.
COVID-19 as a democracy crisis
The COVID-19 crisis turned 2020 into a year full of challenges and revelations for Serbia. As in other parts of the Western Balkans region, Serbia was struck by the health crisis whilst being unprepared and with its health systems in dire conditions.
Vučić declared that European solidarity was a fairy tale and that the only reliable partner Serbia had was China
The lack of medical equipment and supplies and the generally poor healthcare system forced the country to seek assistance and help from EU member states, as well as from countries outside the EU club, namely China and Russia. The COVID-19 crisis and the country’s general foreign policy's trajectory pushed Serbia to reveal often short-term tactical manoeuvres and illiberal undemocratic practices at the cost of its reliability and credibility as an EU candidate country.
What better way to illustrate this shift than to look at the press conference of Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić on 15 March 2020. Evidently disappointed by the lack of European financial support for his country’s medical supplies, Vučić declared that European solidarity was a fairy tale and that the only reliable partner Serbia had was China.4 This message came from the highest level of power and coloured the Serbian citizens’ perception of foreign actors.
According to the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy’s public opinion survey from October 2020, 75 per cent of Serbia’s citizens think that China has provided by far the most assistance to Serbia to fight the pandemic – more than any other country, including the EU block.5 Although this is far from the truth, given that the EU remained the biggest donor in Serbia in 2020 and specifically provided aid to combat the COVID-19 crisis, the government’s statements favoured China.6
The state of emergency in Serbia was used to further intimidate and suppress the few independent media outlets left
The state of emergency that was announced at that same press conference also revealed the poor state of the Serbian democracy and, consequently, the lack of accountability of Serbia's security sector. The latter was the primary enforcer of the state of emergency and harsh curfews, which lasted for 52 days.
The Belgrade Centre for Security Policy has been monitoring the security sector's performance during the state of emergency. It concluded that there were various malfunctions of the security sector, abuses of power and political interference in the work of the judiciary and the police.7
The state of emergency in Serbia was used to further intimidate and suppress the few independent media outlets left.8 Overall, negotiating chapters 23 and 24 of Serbia’s EU accession process, which deal with the rule of law, were seriously neglected and ignored.
Serbia’s ultimate foreign policy goal
Since 2008, the year of Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia, Serbia’s foreign policy has been predominantly occupied with the Kosovo issue, and it seems to remain the only constant and pervasive agenda of the country's foreign policy. The so-called Kosovo-Serbia dialogue facilitated by Brussels has entered its tenth year.
The dialogue had limited success in previous years and mostly focused on the technical aspects. During the course of its existence, the talks were disrupted by occasional excursions to ideas such as a land swap and promises of quick fixes, but these attempts have just damaged the credibility of the Brussels led process.
With the renewed commitment of the new European Commission and the appointment of the special envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue in October 2020, it seems that the EU is more committed than before to break the impasse and to get to the core of the problem. The goal of the process should be a comprehensive binding agreement between Serbia and Kosovo.
Only 8 per cent of Serbian citizens favours recognition of Kosovo
However, whether Serbia has a real interest in making a deal with Kosovo is very much dependent on the current government’s will to compromise. The Serbian president, who acts as a chief negotiator in the dialogue, has not expressed genuine intention to further the process.
In his public statements regarding Kosovo, it is hardly possible to see a strategy or plan. It looks more like it that he is using Kosovo as a chip for playing with the EU, while blaming Kosovo for non-cooperation.
Since Vučić is planning to run for president in 2022, it is doubtful that he will do anything to endanger his second term by making a deal that would be seen as ‘treason’ by most Serbian citizens. According to the abovementioned public opinion survey, only 8 per cent of Serbian citizens favours recognition of Kosovo.9
Serbia enjoys support from both Russia and China when it comes to its position regarding Kosovo. In return, Serbia often votes in line with these countries – when against the EU – in the international fora.
Serbia’s foreign policy is least adjusted to the EU common foreign policy positions, required by chapter 31 of the EU accession process. It comes to 60 per cent of alignment to the EU positions on the various foreign policy themes, which range from Venezuela to Belarus. For comparison, other EU aspirants from the Balkans, Montenegro and North Macedonia, have their foreign policy positions aligned to 90 per cent or even 93 per cent with the EU.10
Regarding the case of Venezuela, Serbia did not align with four EU declarations issued in 2019 on the country's situation. Later that year, when Russia decreased its interest in Venezuela, Serbia started to align and joined a few EU declarations on Venezuela. However, when China expressed its support to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s regime, Serbia again stopped aligning.
Serbia expressed its interest in joint Russia-Belarus military exercises
Serbia’s multi-vector foreign and defence policy can also be seen in the case of Belarus. Serbia was not backing EU declarations and EU policies towards Belarus, which condemned the authoritarian and undemocratic regime in this country.
When the election crisis broke out, followed by massive protests of Belarus citizens, Serbia expressed its interest in joint Russia-Belarus military exercises planned for September 2020. Upon pressure from the EU, Serbia gave up on this joint military drill and decided to suspend all military exercises with foreign troops for six months.
These cases show that Serbia is willing to follow the EU's positions when it does not hamper its position vis-à-vis Russia and China. Serbia’s balancing act does not only arise from the Kosovo issue; in its essence, the country has deep mistrust towards the West.
Opportunistic swings between Russia, China and the EU will probably continue to be Serbia’s foreign policy, providing all the actors are present in the Balkans. Making trade-offs with all of them for its political benefit and staying in power is the only goal of this strategy.
Partial restoration of the Serbian foreign and security policy is still possible, but not with this government
Serbia has entered a geopolitical power game in the Balkans without any illusions or promises to keep, or commitments to hold. The EU is on the losing end of this balancing act, and as long as the EU appears weak and afraid that it will lose Serbia to Russia or China, it will not have good arguments, nor it will look firm and serious in the Balkans.
Partial restoration of the Serbian foreign and security policy is still possible, but not with this government. Serbia could commit to rebuilding its relationship with the region and its EU allies and NATO partners. Serbia could once and for all stop playing great powers against each other in the Balkans and dedicate to its strategic goal and people’s will: that Serbia’s place is in the EU, which was expressed at all general elections since 2000. It could also spearhead a new democratic wave in the region by showing how reliable it is as a partner.
To do so, Serbia needs bold commitment from the EU and for the EU to live up to its promise in the Balkans. If not, the half-finished European project in the Balkans will become a ruined investment.
The EU has lost its momentum in the Balkans and has let other powers fill the void. Now the Union has to compete with others over this part of Europe and makes concessions with the autocrats.
The EU’s conditionality policy lost both its stick and the carrot
New players, China, Russia and other non-EU actors are benevolent towards undemocratic governance as long it secures them economic expansion. Weakened by the democratic deficit in some of its member states and focused on the different approaches to cope with the geopolitics, the perception of the EU does not look good in Serbia today. Despite the fact that the majority of citizens is in favour of EU accession, the EU is perceived as hesitant and divided.
For the undemocratic leaders, this is a perfect chance to further deteriorate their credibility. The Balkans and Serbia are different places than they were ten years ago. Back then the EU was the only player in town. Today there are many others and a lot of corrosive capital – funding from third countries (such as China, Russia and the Gulf States) which lacks transparency and accountability – which can fuel undemocratic practices for some time in the future.11
The EU’s conditionality policy, which was at the core of the enlargement policy, lost both its stick and the carrot. This is best proven in the case of Serbia, which remains resistant to comply and align its policies to the EU’s.
- 1. Every year, the European Commission publishes country reports on the preparedness of the candidates and potential candidate countries on their path to the EU membership. Last year’s report on Serbia: European Commission, ‘Serbia Report 2020’.
- 2. Since the beginning of the EU accession process in 2011, Serbia has opened 17 chapters and didn’t manage to close single one.
- 3. Freedom House’s annual report ‘Nations in Transit’ tracks this decline of democracy in Serbia. In 2020, Freedom House described Serbia’s governance as hybrid regime and not free country: Freedom House, ‘Serbia’, 2020.
- 4. Julija Simić, ‘Serbia turns to China due to “lack of EU solidarity” on coronavirus’, Euractiv, 18 March 2020.
- 5. BCSP, ‘Many Faces of Serbian Foreign Policy, Public Opinion and Geopolitical Balancing’, 2020.
- 6. EU support for emergency measures in Serbia was around 100 million euros: COVID-19 Health Systems Response Monitoring, ‘Serbia’, no date.
- 7. Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, ‘The Security Sector in the State of Emergency: Testing Democracy’, 15 May 2020.
- 8. Milica Stojanovic, ‘Serbian Reporter’s Arrest Over Pandemic Article Draws PM’s Apology’, Balkan Insight, 2 April 2020.
- 9. Belgrade Centre for Security Studies, ‘Kosovo – What Do Citizens Know, Think and Feel’, 30 November 2020.
- 10. More on the monitoring Serbia’s foreign policy alignment with the EU see: International and Security Affairs Centre, ‘Seven Years of Serbia’s Alignment with the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU’, ‘Seven Years of Serbia’s Alignment with the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU’, December 2020.
- 11. Tena Prelec, ‘The vicious circle of corrosive capital, authoritarian tendencies and state capture in the Western Balkans’, in: Journal of Regional Security, 2020, vol. 15, no. 2, pages 167-198.