Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia and High Representative of the EU Federica Mogherini  © European External Action Service 2015.

Serbia and the EU: a value based EU still has its appeal

17-06-2016 | Milena Lazarević and Sena Marić

Serbian support for the EU is influenced by the conditioning within the accession process and the credibility of a value based EU, Milena Lazarević and Sena Marić write

Milena Lazarević is Programme Director and Sena Marić is Researcher at the European Policy Centre in Belgrade

Despite decline the majority of the population is still in favour of EU membership

Since the major democratic changes in the early 2000s, Serbian citizens have been largely in favour of EU membership. The level of EU support has so far been influenced more by the developments and changing dynamics of the EU-Serbia relationship than by the circumstances in the EU itself. For example, the highest level of support (73%) was reached in December 2009 in light of granting Serbia visa liberalization which allowed travel in the Schengen area countries, whereas the lowest levels (around 40%) were marked in December 2012 and December 2014 after multiple delays in the Serbia-EU accession negotiations process, which were mainly driven by the political criteria related to the normalisation of the relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

The level of support has been in a steady decline since 2010, yet membership is still supported. From an average of 65% before 2010 it nowadays reaches around 50%.

Perception of continued and unfair EU conditioning
This tendency could be a result of the EU’s insufficient visibility in the country and a perceived perception that the EU keeps setting new conditions for Serbia’s EU membership. The majority of Serbian citizens believe that a EU’s unfair “blackmailing policy” is the greatest reason for Serbia’s lengthy progress in accession negotiations, rather than an unsatisfactory track record in reaching the necessary membership criteria.

This may not come as a surprise, given that extremely diverse, even contrasting, statements can be heard from the representatives of the EU member states, the European Commission and the members of the European Parliament on whether, for example, Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s statehood is a conditio sine qua non for its entry into the EU. Serbian citizens perceive them all as “EU officials” and have difficulties in differentiating between the institutions and interests they represent.

Informed public debate on the EU missing
Even though the EU is the largest single donor in Serbia since 2000, the majority of Serbian citizens are not aware of that fact, and more than two thirds have never heard of any EU-financed project. Instead, they perceive Russia, Japan, China and others as greater donors than the EU. Moreover, around 50% of the citizens are either mal-informed or ignorant of the current status in the accession negotiations.  What is also suggestive is that approximately one third of the population is indifferent about the EU and would not know how to vote on EU membership if the referendum was held tomorrow.

At the same time, on a superficial level all mainstream political parties are vocally pro-EU whereas a substantive debate on the costs and benefits of EU membership, Serbia’s vision as an EU member, the EU policies of particular interest, etc., is lacking. A vast educational vacuum is hence present in the public space and it requires more streamlined EU and Serbian government’s communication policies.

Desire for a society in line with EU values
For more than 60% of Serbian citizens the EU is perceived in a positive light: as a chance to bring order to society, better employment possibilities, more opportunities for the youth and a chance to move and travel freely. Fight against corruption and the reform of the judiciary are considered as two policies with greatest benefits of EU-induced reforms. Such attitudes should be taken as an impetus for EU’s enlargement policy, as they show that Serbian citizens perceive the EU accession process as a potential to transform Serbian society for the better. More than 70% believe that the conditions to be met for EU membership, including normalisation of relations with Pristina, should be pursued regardless of the EU, but for the sake of Serbia itself.

A value-based EU with potential for enlargement
It is reasonable to expect that as an EU member Serbia would continue to strongly support the enlargement policy, especially the continuation of the Western Balkan enlargement. Bringing all of its neighbours within the EU borders would be beneficial for Serbia both in terms of security (for example, border protection) and trade relations, given that it is a major net-exporter to the rest of the region.

The on-going migration (refugee) crisis in Europe is a marked example where Serbia has shown its capacity to uphold EU values and be part of the solution to a wider European problem. This can be taken to show that Serbia has a strong potential for solidarity and respect for human rights. As a member state, Serbia may be strongly in favour of strengthening of the Union’s value base by consolidating the EU’s asylum and immigration policies within the spirit of the treaties. 

Despite the multiple crises the EU has faced in the last decade, it has not lost its appeal – in fact, adherence to its core values is seen by Serbs as the greatest argument for pursuing membership. However, the worrying developments within the EU regarding the respect of solidarity, non-discrimination, human rights etc., threaten to reduce its allure and “transformative power”. Once a member, Serbia thus envisions the Union where the respect of its defined values will be strictly observed and where equal standards would apply to all of its members. In that sense, Serbia would be strongly opposed to a “two-speed” Europe and would expect to have the same rights and obligations as all other member states.

Milena Lazarević is Programme Director and Sena Marić is Researcher at the European Policy Centre in Belgrade

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