The president of the Brussels Center for European and International Policy (CEIPA) and the former ambassador of Belgium in Belgrade, Denise de Hauer, assessed that 10 years after the beginning of the accession negotiations, Serbia is increasingly moving away from the positions of the EU, stating that for Brussels the main problem in relation to Serbia is its position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the conflict with Kosovo.
“It would be logical that as a result of a decade of negotiations, Serbia is now closer to the EU in terms of democracy and the rule of law, with closer foreign policy views and activities.” However, things are going in the opposite direction and the positions of Serbia and the EU are further and further apart,” said De Hauer and added that in Serbia the regression in the area of the rule of law is the greatest in the Balkans, freedom of the media is problematic, while in foreign policy Belgrade is trying to balance between the East and the West and is selective in aligning with European values.
In an interview published on the CEIPA website, De Hauer said that EU membership must be supported by the whole society, which is now problematic in Serbia.
“People’s enthusiasm for EU membership has declined in recent years because the public has lost faith in the fact that accession negotiations are a very long process. Reforms are essential and the government should do more to enforce the law. Also, Serbia is the only candidate country in which the government runs a media campaign against the EU, and formally supports membership,” she pointed out.
Speaking about Kosovo, De Hauer said that there is a danger of re-igniting tensions because there is no political will for the necessary concessions on either side, and the agreements are not implemented, indicating that the Kosovo problem as a hot topic corresponds to the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić.
“By promising the EU to resolve the conflict, Vučić secured the favor of the Union, which gives him the umbrella of impunity, while he; at the same time, it diverts attention at home from internal problems and slowly transforms Serbia into an autocratic state. It is not in his interest to work on a solution,” she pointed out.
When asked about the influence of Russia and China, De Hauer said that “in recent years it has become clear that the Kremlin’s strategy is not only to maintain and increase its influence in the region, but also to disrupt the process of integration into NATO and the EU by exploiting weak institutions and by actively politicizing and tightening existing ethnic and religious tensions”.
“Serbia is Russia’s main partner and the center of Russian influence in the Western Balkans, and Moscow’s opposition to Kosovo’s independence has helped it maintain its popularity and influence over Belgrade and the ethnic Serbian population throughout the Balkans.” “Moscow is hindering the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia by interfering with dangerous rhetoric and spreading propaganda about the conflicts between ‘Greater Albania’ and ‘Greater Serbia,'” she said.
According to her, the Chinese approach is more subtle than the Russian one, but Beijing’s ambitions may be more significant — yes; gain access to the EU.
“China’s main interest in the Western Balkans does not refer primarily to the countries of the region as such, but to their proximity to the EU, which is the main export market for China. It wants to maintain and deepen diplomatic and economic relations with countries in the Balkans (except for Kosovo on a diplomatic level because it does not recognize it) and with Serbia as China’s main regional partner. However, there appears to be no sign that the Chinese government has attempted to exert political influence through its economic involvement in Serbia, or that it ever will,” De Hauer added.
De Hauer, who as a diplomat dealt with the Balkans for a long time, assessed that there is little hope for a solution to the Kosovo problem as long as Serbia is ruled by the SNS under the leadership of Aleksandar Vučić, stressing that it is time for the EU to wake up.
“Vučić needs the support of the West to stay in power.” The EU has supported him so far, considering him to be cooperative on the issue of Kosovo. As long as it is seen that Vučić is trying to solve the Kosovo issue, the EU will continue to support him. It is time for the EU to wake up and recognize that its attitude is cooperative only in words, and that at home its rhetoric is completely different. “It is time for the EU to stop approving the behavior of President Vučić,” she said.
De Hauer pointed out that Serbia is by far the largest recipient of financial aid from the EU in the Balkans and added that “withholding funds when Serbia engages in anti-European rhetoric or actions could contribute to a certain moderation on the Serbian side.”
“At the same time, the EU should put pressure on both Kosovo and Serbia to start implementing the Agreement on the Normalization Path between Kosovo and Serbia (the so-called Franco-German proposal, agreed in February 2023) and the Ohrid Agreement (agreed on in March 2023). which should prepare a road map on how to realize this normalization, what should be done, in what time frame, who should do it and how), as well as come out with financial sanctions if either of the two parties does not show political goodwill,” she added.
Da Hauer also assessed that the situation with media freedom in Serbia is worrisome, stating that although the Constitution of Serbia guarantees media freedom, journalists are threatened by political pressures and impunity for crimes committed against them, which often leads to self-censorship.
“Since the current ruling SNS party came to power in 2012, the influence of the state has been slowly strengthening and the attacks on the autonomy of Serbian universities have intensified. The media are now mostly owned by state-owned enterprises. There is no more media pluralism. The anti-EU narrative dominates the news. There is no place for any kind of opposition: President Vučić is 14 times more present on national television than the entire opposition,” she stated.
She added that it seems that the government is now moving towards an even tougher policy, reminiscent of the moves of Slobodan Milošević’s regime in 1998, when laws on education and information were passed that completely stifled the autonomy of higher education institutions and media freedom, and were implemented by Vučić as the then minister. As an example, she cited the law on the appointment of controversial figures to the councils of faculties and universities and the law that stifles the media financially and makes them less competitive on the market by allowing (state-owned) Telekom Serbia to establish and own media.
De Hauer concluded that the EU should use the current weakening of Russia’s position in the Western Balkans to strengthen its own position in the region in the long term and to provide it with new drivers for development.
“This is only possible if the EU continues to show a real interest in creating the perspective of European integration for the region and firmly advocates for the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. The EU also needs to improve its communication strategy. Although Serbia is the country in the Balkans with by far the largest financial aid from the EU, the Serbian people hardly know that,” said Ambassador De Hauer for CEIPA.
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