I still very much remember the words of a high level nationalist politician from the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), a national conservative party, when I got a tour in the Serbian parliament in Belgrade back in spring 2007. I asked him when Serbia would join the EU. He just laughed and responded that this will not be necessary because the EU will fall apart soon anyways. Well, although the crisis was afterwards hitting the EU hard, the union certainly did not fall; on the opposite, it even strengthened. On Tuesday, the 21 January 2014 the first conference for accession negotiations with the EU means that Belgrade is at the start of a historic path towards European integration. Or, as a Serbian journalist put it, “the bad guy is knocking on the door.”
2013 was truly a historic year for Serbia as I wrote in December 2013 as Serbia became the green light for negotiations. That is quite lucrative as EU Commissioner Stefan Fuele estimates that the EU will have given a total of €6.2 billion to Serbia in pre-accession funds to help Serbia make changes in various sectors. However, Serbian deputy prime minister Aleksandar Vucic, says that the potential EU membership is not so much about the money that flows to Serbia but rather is decisive to help Serbia make reforms which would bring it up to the same standards as other European countries. The new star in Serbian politics noted, “We will have to change our mindsets, our habits, ourselves – and that is the most important thing.” Vucic is known as the man who is able to get things done and seal the deals when they are on the brink to fail. Moreover, anti-corruption campaigns have helped to target tycoons that profited illegally from privatization. The opposition, however, claims that they would be targeted while people close to the government would not be touched.
However, not all Serbs are in favor about the EU. They have not forgotten the “merciful angel,” NATO’s air campaign in 1999 which unjustifiably also killed many civilians because of the monition that was used. At the same time, for quite some Serbs it is not quite clear yet why the international community intervened in Serbia in the first place. And afterwards, there is a strong perception out there that “war heroes” should be war criminals while Croatian general Ante Gotovina was acquitted in 2012. Thus, the perception among many in Serbia is that Serbs would receive an unfair treatment at the Yugoslavian tribunal. Clearly, a more critical dealing the own past Moreover, since years there is the impression that there is a fatigue of further expansion in the EU itself. Last but not least the rather dire economic situation in the EU itself might not make it that attractive as before the crisis.
Getting on the accession track meant compromise on Kosovo, which unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Previous governments in Belgrade had resisted strong pressure from the United States and many EU members to normalize relations with the breakaway republic – partly out of fear of upsetting Serbian nationalist groups. Now it is ironically the nationalists who are in power who agreed to a deal with Kosovo thanks to EU mediation back in April 2013.
While the BBC thinks that it takes at least a decade before Serbia is able to join the EU, Deutsche Welle is a bit more optimistic arguing it should take at least six years. That number is not least taken from Croatia’s recent experience to join the union which it finally did in July 2013 as the EU’s 28th member. Thus, the year 2020 would be the aim to head for, as also announced by Vucic. Major issues for Serbia are numerous: the Kosovo issue, the dire economic situation, gaps in respect to the rule of law, battling corruption and nepotism, strengthening political institutions, a desolate infrastructure, and an inefficient and not trusted judiciary. Another issue has been solved as former high-level Serbian politicians accused of war crimes in the 1990s were finally extradited to The Hague’s ICTY. Overall, it will be 35 chapters that have to be fulfilled by Serbia in the process of obtaining the EU membership.
Other nationalist forces in the opposition like DSS’s Vojislav Kostunica argue that the EU integration process is “devastating for Serbia’s national interest.” There is also some ranting going on from some Kosovars that they have not been properly rewarded by the EU for the April 2013 agreement, neglecting that there are not many reform efforts to boost with. This will not be able to start the accession talks. However, many harsh reform efforts will be necessary so that Serbia will progress. With Vucic aiming for taking over his party and calling for new elections, this even seems to be likely. Thanks to his popularity, he would most likely win early elections and progress with high-speed the reforms that Serbia need. And more than anything, this would be the best negotiation strategy for Serbia that is out there: to deliver.