Serbia and the EU reach a stalemate

by editor | 28th December 2011 8:39 am

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Josip Glaurdic
(Junior Research Fellow at Clare College)
Upcoming elections in Serbia will delay any hopes of a forthcoming EU candidacy

Serbian President Boris Tadic is committed to maintaining current policies to avoid upsetting public opinion [EPA]

Cambridge, United Kingdom – The world held its breath in expectation of the decision of the European Council regarding the eurozone crisis at the Council’s meeting in Brussels two weeks ago. The choice of the 26 EU member states to form a closer fiscal union – or rather the decision of David Cameron to keep the United Kingdom on the sidelines of that move – understandably grabbed global headlines. In the Balkans, however, the media coverage of the Brussels event was dominated by the contrast between the Council’s decisions to sign the Accession Treaty with Croatia and to postpone giving candidate status to Serbia.
The signing of the Accession Treaty with Croatia reminded some EU leaders of what the Union still means for many Europeans, especially those who were left out of its integrative developments. After an arduous process of negotiations, which have been repeatedly halted and restarted, Croatia finally appears to be set to join the EU in July 2013 – nine long years after it was formally given candidate status.
Serbia, on the other hand, is still awaiting the EU’s approval of its candidacy. There had been some optimism in the Belgrade press in the run-up to the Brussels meeting, particularly in light of the recent deal between Serbia and Kosovo regarding joint management of border crossings.

But the EU Council – primarily due to German pressure – decided to postpone its decision on Serbia’s candidate status until February 2012. It also presented the Serbian government with three crucial demands: the successful implementation of the border agreement with Kosovo in good faith, agreement on inclusive regional co-operation, and active co-operation in enabling EULEX and KFOR to fulfill their mandates.

Although Serbia’s President Boris Tadic graciously congratulated Croatia and proclaimed its near-certain EU membership a success for the whole region, the bitterness and disappointment in Serbia’s government circles were palpable. The government’s vice-president for European integration, Bozidar Delic, one of Serbia’s staunchest pro-EU politicians, resigned as he had promised to do if Serbia did not manage to achieve EU candidate status by the end of this year.

Delic, of course, left to come back. His departure is probably little more than positioning in the inter- and intra-party struggles in the build-up to Serbia’s 2012 parliamentary elections. And because of these elections, it is highly unlikely there will be any progress in Serbia’s EU accession efforts in the months to come. Delic himself said as much to the Serbian media when asked of his country’s prospects to achieve candidate status in February.

Reasons for stalemate

Simply put, Serbia and the EU have cornered themselves into a stalemate.

The reasons for this stalemate are two-fold and are mutually reinforcing. The first is that all major Serbian parties go on a nationalist auto-pilot in electoral campaigns. When it comes to the Serbian Progressive Party – an offshoot of Vojislav Seselj’s Radicals – such a decision could have been anticipated.

The rhetoric of Ivica Dacic, the leader of the Socialist Party and a crucial coalition partner in the current government, is also hardly surprising. Dacic used David Cameron as an inspiration to suggest that Serbian diplomats ought to stand up to Brussels on the issue of Kosovo, just like the British prime minister did over fiscal union.

However, the issue is that when it comes to such rhetoric, the ruling Democratic Party does not lag far behind. Serbia’s President Boris Tadi? and foreign minister Vuk Jeremi? have claimed that some EU member states demanded that Serbia recognises Kosovo in order to achieve candidate status – a highly improbable proposition which was immediately denied throughout the EU and labelled a “statement for domestic consumption in the electoral campaign”.

To some, this may seem as merely an attempt by Tadic and Jeremic to deflect from their own personal responsibility for Serbia’s failure to achieve candidate status, but their reasons are actually deeper: In the dominant Serbian public opinion, EU membership is not worth sacrificing Kosovo. A recent poll found that 59 per cent of Serbian voters believe that Serbia should not become an EU member state if the condition for membership is the recognition of Kosovo’s independence. In other words, neither the Serbian public nor the Serbian political elite have come to terms with Kosovo’s loss.

The second reason why any progress in Serbia’s accession to the European Union is unlikely to happen in the following months stems from the EU itself – or with the lessons that some influential member states have drawn from their long experience of negotiations with Serbia. This time they want Belgrade to establish a real dialogue with Pristina and remove the parallel Serb institutions in northern Kosovo.

In effect, they want Serbia to lower tensions and to create some form of a modus vivendi with Kosovo. It may be a bitter pill for many in Belgrade to swallow, but it is significantly less bitter than the actual recognition of Kosovo’s independence would be.

The electoral benefit of EU accession progress is simply not significant enough to outweigh the electoral cost that would come from being perceived as abandoning the Kosovo issue.

It is not the demand itself that is the actual issue; the issue is actually that there is a strong school of thought within the EU (principally championed by Germany) that Serbian government structures respond only to pressure.

Considering the record of Serbia’s relations with the EU, this viewpoint is hardly surprising. Whenever the Serbian government actually delivers – like it did on the extraditions of Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, and Goran Hadzic or on the recent border agreement with Kosovo – it was the result of concerted European and American pressure.

The problem now is that Boris Tadic and the Serbian government have committed themselves – at least until the elections – to their current policy, which will bring them no closer to EU candidacy. The electoral benefit of EU accession progress is simply not significant enough to outweigh the electoral cost that would come from being perceived as abandoning the Kosovo issue. And no matter how much pressure is applied, this will not change.

Electoral campaign

Although it is unlikely, there is one way in which Serbia could achieve candidate status in early 2012: if the EU member states (and the United States!) judge such an intervention to be needed in order to prop up pro-European forces in the Serbian electoral campaign. The Democratic Party is currently some 10 points behind the Serbian Progressive Party in the polls and looks set to lose the elections, though not necessarily the government.

This is exactly why Tadic and the Democrats are once again turning towards nationalism. But their problem is that they are reaching the limit of credibility, both with their nationalism domestically and their Europeanism internationally.

It is increasingly doubtful that the West will consider Tadic and his party a worthwhile investment. It is no secret that many western governments would not mind a Democratic Party defeat if only so they no longer have to deal with Vuk Jeremic.

More importantly, the Serbian Progressive Party has made some efforts in polishing its image internationally, which has been well received. These may be low-level meetings with officials and diplomats in western capitals like Washington and Paris, but signs of a possible shift in international opinion are there. Western officials might be tempted to believe that the Serbian Progressives could turn out to be like the Croatian Democratic Union nearly a decade ago – vocally hostile to Croatia’s co-operation with The Hague Tribunal while in opposition, but pliant once in government.

That would be a serious gamble, not least because Kosovo is a much more contentious issue in Serbia than the cooperation with The Hague Tribunal ever was in Croatia. But it would be a gamble with a possible payoff.

On the other hand, with Boris Tadic’s Democratic Party in government, the West knows what it is getting. And that may be Tadic’s biggest problem.

Josip Glaurdic is Junior Research Fellow at Clare College, University of Cambridge and the author of The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia (Yale University Press, 2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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