Why is the EU soft on Serbia?


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Welcome back. As an official candidate for EU membership, Serbia is supposed to be a democracy that respects the rule of law and aligns itself with the bloc’s foreign policy. It plainly falls short on all counts. So why is the EU, along with the US, soft on Serbia? I’m at tony.barber@ft.com.

First, the results of last week’s poll. Asked if Belgium would break up, some 82 per cent of you said no, 11 per cent said yes and 9 per cent were undecided. Thank you for voting!

Why Serbia matters

Let’s summarise why the EU and US pay close attention to Serbia.

First, in terms of geographical size and population, it’s the largest country in the area known, since the break-up of communist Yugoslavia after the cold war, as the “western Balkans”.

A chart showing Balkan countries in the EU
Kosovo is not recognised by Serbia, nor by five EU member states: Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania

Second, this area was the scene in the 1990s of what were, until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the most violent wars in post-1945 Europe — in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo. Extreme Serbian nationalism was at the heart of those wars and remains a factor in regional power struggles.

Third, the area is a focus of geopolitical competition among western countries, Russia and China. More than its neighbours, Serbia seeks to play off the EU and US against Moscow and Beijing — drawing on the tradition of non-alignment made famous by Josip Broz Tito, the late Yugoslav leader.

Last, the EU is nominally committed to enlarging its membership by incorporating Serbia and its neighbours as well as countries beyond the region such as Moldova and Ukraine. However, Serbia is far from meeting the EU’s membership conditions, and there are good reasons for doubting whether the rightwing nationalist leadership in Belgrade really wants to join the club.

Knowing this, the EU and US have placed a bet on Serbia as a useful partner for other reasons — migration controls, strategic economic co-operation and preventing tensions in and around Kosovo from destabilising the wider region.

Unfair elections

No western Balkan country is a perfect democracy, but Serbia stands out because its deficiencies are similar to those the EU finds offensive in Hungary, the bloc’s most errant member.

Like Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s premier, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić practises a form of strongman rule imbued with cultural conservatism, cosy ties with Russia and China, and support for national minorities abroad (Hungarians in Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine, and Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo).

In an article this week for the Carnegie Institute, Dimitar Bechev wrote:

One would think that the country has long moved on from the lows of the 1990s. However, the feeling among at least some Serbs is that the clock has been turned back to the era of former president and strongman Slobodan Milošević.

After Vučić and his ruling party won a predictably crushing victory in Serbia’s snap parliamentary elections on December 17, the EU issued what sounded like a stern rebuke but was in truth a light slap on the wrist.

EU commissioners Josep Borrell and Olivér Várhelyi said:

We conclude with concern that the electoral process requires tangible improvement and further reform, as the proper functioning of Serbia’s democratic institutions is at the core of Serbia’s EU accession process . . . We also expect that credible reports of irregularities are followed up in a transparent manner by the competent national authorities.

This statement barely scratched the surface of the defects of Serbian politics and public life. They go beyond flawed electoral procedures, serious though these are.

Marta Szpala, a political scientist at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies, has published two analyses, in May and December, that get to the heart of the matter.

In May, she wrote of “the Serbian state’s systemic problems, including the weakness of its public institutions (which are subordinate to the interests of the ruling parties), the ubiquitous aggression in the public space, corruption, and the links between the government and organised crime”.

After the December vote, she observed: “The elections have consolidated President Aleksandar Vučić’s hegemonic position and corroborated the effectiveness of his party structures in keeping control of society. In this situation, fully democratic elections cannot be held.”

Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić
Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić practises a form of rule imbued with cultural conservatism, friendship with Russia and China and vigorous support for Serbia’s national minorities abroad © Bloomberg

Corruption, organised crime and the ‘Serbian world’

In July, the US imposed sanctions on Aleksandar Vulin, a Vučić ally who headed Serbia’s state security agency, for alleged involvement in international organised crime, narcotics operations, ties with Russia and “promoting ethno-nationalist narratives that fuel instability in Serbia and the region”.

What are these narratives? Under Vučić, who has ruled Serbia as prime minister (2014-2017) and president (2017 to the present), the authorities have promoted the pseudo-philosophical idea of a srpski svet, or Serbian political and cultural world.

This airy but dangerous concept recalls President Vladimir Putin’s promotion of a far-reaching russky mir, or Russian world. Moscow and Belgrade claim the right and duty to “protect” ethnic Russians and Serbs who live outside the mother country.

In Ukraine, we have seen where that leads. There are parallels with Bosnia, where the Bosnian Serb leadership seeks to undermine the organs of state authority, and with Kosovo, where violence erupted in September and the US warned of a build-up of Serbian armed forces near the border.

Going easy on Serbia

Migration

One reason why the EU plays down its difficulties with Serbia is that governments fear a return of the refugee and migrant crisis that swept across south-eastern Europe and convulsed the EU itself in 2015-2016. In the eyes of Brussels, Serbian co-operation is critical in preventing a repeat of that episode.

In March, Ylva Johansson, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, visited Belgrade and lavished praise on the Serbian authorities for deterring irregular migrants.

She noted that representatives of Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, would join Serbian police in patrolling the country’s borders with other non-EU states such as Bosnia and North Macedonia.

Co-operation on migration was a major theme of Italian premier Giorgia Meloni’s visit to Belgrade in December (here in Italian is a Rai News report).

For Italy’s government, few issues are more urgent than curbing irregular migration — and that means keeping on good terms with Serbia, as Maja Bjeloš explains in this article for the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.

Lithium

Although Serbia’s economy is relatively small, the country has one of Europe’s largest known deposits of lithium, a mineral essential for producing electric vehicle batteries.

In September, EU commissioner Maroš Šefčovič signed a letter of intent with Vučić on an EU-Serbian partnership in batteries and critical raw materials, including lithium.

As this European Commission paper sets out, there is “explosive demand growth” for lithium. The EU’s green transition plans depend on secure access to it.

Serbia would be a most convenient supplier — though it would mean restoring a mining lithium project that was cancelled in 2022 after local protests about the potential environmental impact.

Kosovo

A third reason for the EU’s soft approach to Serbia is Kosovo, the former Serbian province with an ethnic Albanian majority (countries that don’t recognise Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 include Serbia, Russia, China and five EU states).

For Europeans and Americans alike, a conflict in south-eastern Europe would be extremely unwelcome at a time when allied support for Ukraine is coming under pressure and the risks of Chinese actions against Taiwan are ever-present.

A mural reads ‘Kosovo is Serbia and Crimea is Russia’ in Kosovo’s North Mitrovica, which has an ethnic Serb majority
‘Kosovo is Serbia and Crimea is Russia’ reads a mural in Kosovo’s North Mitrovica, which has an ethnic Serb majority © Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images

In another article for Carnegie Europe, Bechev argues that the EU and US have tended in recent years to treat Vučić as “the proverbial adult in the room” — the key to a compromise that would involve Serbian recognition of Kosovo in exchange for autonomy for the young state’s ethnic Serb minority.

It’s the right way forward, and it’s true that’s Kosovo’s leaders have dragged their heels on the vital question of local Serb self-government. But Vučić has shown few signs of repaying the faith that western leaders have placed in him to reach a Kosovo settlement.

Serbian deals with Russia and China

Meanwhile, Vučić has refused to join western sanctions on Moscow. Serbia and Russia even signed a foreign policy accord in September 2022 when Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was in full swing.

In another sign of Belgrade’s diplomatic distance from the EU and US, Serbia and China struck a free trade agreement in October that includes scope for military co-operation.

All in all, the question arises: is the west’s effort to work constructively with Vučić producing any real benefits? In terms of the quality of Serbian democracy, a pro-western foreign policy and the search for a Kosovo deal, the answer would appear to be a resounding “No”.

More on this topic

Playing with fire in Belgrade — an essay by Walter Mayr for Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine

Tony’s picks of the week

Gabriel Attal, appointed this week as France’s youngest ever prime minister at the age of 34, is mocked by critics as a “baby Macron”, but since his privileged childhood he has never been short of self-confidence, the FT’s Leila Abboud and Sarah White report from Paris

The risk of a Tunisian debt default is rising as the country takes an authoritarian turn under President Kais Saied amid tensions with EU states across the Mediterranean, the International Crisis Group writes in a report

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