Serbia and the EU: duet with false notes

At the spring summit, the European Council can grant Serbia the candidate membership. In the Balkan country itself support for the European accession has reached a historical low.

‘Never.’ It doesn’t take Milena Markovic (19) a second to reflect on her answer. ‘Never will Serbia enter the European Union. They always find some excuse to refuse that. Today it is Kosovo. Tomorrow the EU finds that there is not enough street lighting in Belgrade or that there are too many birds flying around.’ Markovic, a math student, is in the EU-Information centre in the heart of Belgrade, bent over a pile of foreign news papers. This immediately explains why she visits the info centre; to read European media and improve her English.

Milka Budisin (79), a bench further on, comes here to read Der Spiegel, not to be informed on the European future of Serbia. Albeit the former English/German teacher is more hopeful about Brussels. Budisin: ‘My native village used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My ancestors were part of Europe. I watch German television, read British literature, listen to European composers … Serbia has always been part of Europe.’

Although the information centre is the face of Europe in Serbia, you can count its visitors on one hand. According to project manager Dubravka Savic that is a normal daily average. The centre’s website reaches no more than 7000 visitors a month. A lack of interest? Savic: ‘In Serbia, the support for the European accession has never been as low as today. In January 2010 two out of three Serbs were in favour of Brussels, in October 2011 this had dropped to 46 percent.’

Opinion surveyor Marko Blagojevic of the market research office Cesid closely follows the Serbian public opinion. Blagojevic: ‘Even when Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence, support for the EU accession was still higher. So what is the problem then? Serbia has been waiting three years for the candidate membership, but for a while now we haven’t been allowed to continue the formalities. Serbs had hoped to get that candidate status last December; it hasn’t happened. On top of that, there are external factors: the Serbs see that the EU itself is in trouble right now. They realise that EU membership does not guarantee a better standard of life and more jobs.’

Berlin is not Brussels

After Serbia scored well for its collaboration with the Yugoslavia Tribunal in The Hague and established a series of reformations, a normalisation with the torn off province Kosovo is the last hurdle on the way to Brussels.

On December 9 2011, the European Council declared that Belgrade will receive the candidate membership only if it collaborates actively with the EU police mission Eulex and the Nato operation Kfor in Kosovo. Next to that, Serbia has to reach an agreement on the regional representation of Kosovo in international organisations, and must implement the already made agreements with Pristina regarding practical affairs such as licence plates and customs stamps.

For diplomat Adriana Martins, the number two of the EU-representation in Serbia, the EU policy on Kosovo is crystal clear. Martins: ‘We want compromises on practical affairs in order to improve the conditions of life for the population in Kosovo. For this we do not ask Kosovo to give up its independence, nor do we ask Belgrade to acknowledge it. The initial result of this approach is that both parties have been sitting around the table for a couple of months now. Not only do they talk, they have resolved a few practical matters as well.’

Nevertheless, the signals Serbia gets from Europe are diffuse. The EU e.g. does not take an official position on something like schools and hospitals in the north of Kosovo that receive financial support from Serbia. But at the same time the German Chancellor Angela Merkel pleads for the discontinuance of those “parallel institutions”. Martins: ‘The German perspective is in this regard the perspective of Pristina. That comes as a shock to the Serbs; they would prefer that Berlin didn’t acknowledge Kosovo’s independence (like Spain, Romania, Greece, Cyprus and Slovakia, kc). But Germany is entitled to its own foreign policy. It’s up to the Serbs to decide whether they want to ignore the German attitude or on the contrary take it seriously because Berlin carries a lot of weight in the EU.’

Election madness

The ruling coalition For a European Serbia gained power in 2008 with a double goal: make headway in the European integration process and defend the Serbian interests in Kosovo. But not all politicians have sympathy for Brussels. The extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS, president Vojislav Šešelj stands trial in The Hague) and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) are anti- European.

DSS Member of Parliament Slobodan Samrdzic, former minister for Kosovo, emphasizes that his party was pro-European until a few years ago but that the Kosovo file lead to the change. Samrdzic: ‘Is the EU interested in Serbia as a whole or in bits and pieces? Moreover, in the meanwhile the EU has changed its expansion policy, the uncertain membership costs Serbia more than it brings in and the EU itself is faced with an internal crisis. We find that the relation between the EU and Serbia should be reconsidered.’ And then Samrdzic refers to Russia a few times, amongst others as an area of distribution for Serbian agricultural products and with regard to energy safety.

The pressure on the ruling pro-European coalition is considerable. In May, the Serbs have to vote for a new parliament. Opinion surveyor Blagojevic: ‘Europe knows that our politicians have their backs against the wall and takes advantage of the situation. If the European Council gives a green light in March, the coalition will be safe during the elections. That is why Europe can now step up the pressure concerning Kosovo … it will take another four years before a similar climate occurs.’

Vladimir Todoric, director of the think tank New Policy Centre in Belgrade, warns that Serbia is nearing its breaking point. Todoric: ‘If we do not receive the candidate status in March, I don’t see any motivation for Serbia to continue the dialogue with Pristina. Then election madness will follow and who knows what people expect from their politicians. We have extradited hundreds of people to The Hague, have sold every factory to European partners, the parliament has accepted a resolution on Srebrenica, we try to be active partners in bringing stability to the region… To go from A to D, you have to go through B and C. But Serbia stays stuck in B.’

On the Ulica knez Milhailova, the main shopping street in the old city of Belgrade, two young trumpet players take a shot at Beethovens Ode an die Freude. Yet after only a few bars they hit the false notes. On paper though it is not a difficult duet.

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