22nd Mar 2018


Serbia's pro-EU transformation not yet guaranteed

  • Prime minister Aleksandar Vucic is trying to thrust Serbia in a pro-EU direction, but he faces spirited opposition. (Photo: Reuters)

There will have been quiet relief in Brussels that a solidly pro-EU parliament has just been re-elected in Serbia, and that the nation appears strongly committed to the reforms needed for entry. But, as ever, the devil is in the detail. In this case, the detail relates to the number 35.

There will now be 35 new Serbian MPs who are strongly opposed to Belgrade’s EU accession. In a 250-seat parliament, where nearly all others are broadly in favour of what Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic calls the European Path, this might not seem like a major problem.

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But these dissident ultra-right-wingers are street fighters well accustomed to mustering crowds of sympathisers and attracting public attention. They were unrepresented in the previous parliament as they failed to meet the 5 percent voter support threshold needed for parliamentary representation in the last election in 2014.

But odd things happened this time. First, in mid-election, war crimes charges in The Hague against the leader of the ultra-right-wing Serbian Radical Party were dismissed, giving him and his supporters a burst of local publicity. They wound up with just over 8 percent of the vote nationally.

Another right-wing grouping, a coalition of two anti-EU parties, Dveri and the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia, came up short of the required 5 percent. Short, remarkably, by a single vote. There were protests of course, and ultimately election authorities agreed to annul the votes in 15 polling stations and organise a rerun.

The second 35

Then another odd thing happened. Bojan Pajtic, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, and a number of figures from the political left who were formerly highly supportive of EU accession, campaigned on behalf of Dveri-DSS.

They urged their left-leaning and liberal supporters to cast their votes for a grouping that supports nationalist and pro-Russian views and is anti-gay.

These were centre-left and liberal leaders often praised in EU circles for their enlightened views on European integration.

Many of their own supporters were shocked. But enough voted for Dveri-DSS in this mini rerun to push its vote above 5% and give the group 13 parliamentary seats creating, with the Radical Party, an anti-EU bloc of 35 MPs.

The second area where the figure 35 appears is in the 35th chapter in the memorandum relating to Serbia’s accession to the EU. This chapter requires resolution before the accession process can be completed.

Chapters 1- 34 cover formal issues related to an EU accession including free movement of goods (chapter 1) through the judiciary and fundamental rights (chapter 23) to institutional reform (chapter 34).

Chapter 35 is then blandly titled “other issues”. The “other” issue in Serbia’s case relates to its relationship with Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2008.

Serbian accession to the EU is almost certain to depend on a satisfactory resolution to the de facto recognition of Kosovo – even if it is extremely difficult to obtain a de jure resolution.

The difficulty for Serbia is that its constitution specifically forbids recognition of Kosovo. That is a provision which is supported by many of those who otherwise support EU accession and, as a consequence, creates a major difficulty for Serbian negotiators.

There is some hope that these issues can be resolved and this is recognised in Chapter 35, which states that the negotiating process would expect “continuation of the normalisation process and its dialogue with Pristina”.

That phrasing should, hopefully, help the Vucic government’s position.

Avoid over-confidence

There are, however, concerns about the process and how the 35 new anti EU MPs will respond.

There are tricky negotiations for both the EU negotiators and the Vucic government. But it is vital that they find a formula that satisfies the EU accession requirements and at the same time carries a majority of support among the Serbian people.

There are historical examples of this process. Taiwan and China have dealt with the practicalities of their diplomatic relations over a long period of time and there is effective “normalisation”.

Much hard work needs to be done by all of those who support Serbia’s EU accession. I believe such an accession will make a major contribution to stability and peace in the Balkans and throughout the European continent.

But Brussels needs to avoid over-confidence. In Serbia’s more complicated parliament, some of the people the EU has relied upon as stout advocates for integration may have party political reasons to make the process more difficult.

Douglas Henderson is a former UK minister for Europe and minister of state for the armed forces and former chairman of the defence committee of the Western European Union. He is actively engaged in academic teaching in universities in Eastern Europe, and writing about the politics of the region.

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