By Kavya Verma
Serbia is of great geopolitical interest to the EU, dating back to the crisis in the Balkans in the 1990s, which traumatized not only the western Balkans but also all of Europe. In 2000, the Feira Council originally stated that membership to the EU was a plausible option for the Western Balkan states, specifically Serbia, although the opportunity for membership would only be extended if certain criteria were met by these nations. Since then, many milestones have been reached in the EU-Serbia relationship, with a big victory being the 2003 Stabilization and Association Process, along with the 2009 lifting of visa requirements for Serbs traveling to Schengen countries.
Brussels has shown a desire to rapidly integrate Serbia in particular into the European Union, with overtures to the illiberal Vucic administration increasing since the start of the migrant crisis. As high-level officials in the EU have publicly announced ambitious dates for the accession of Serbia into the EU, and Vucic is attempting to balance pro-Russia sentiment in his cabinet with the aims of the EU, many believe that Serbian accession to the EU is merely part of the European Neighborhood Policy and EU security interests in the Western Balkans. However, there are certain factors pointing to a greater explanation behind the EU’s interest in Serbia than simply the ENP and immediate security interests. Certain factors show that in exchange for the plausibility of Serbia joining the EU and prominent EU leaders legitimizing the Vucic administration, Serbia maintains a balance between Russian influence and EU influence, while also stemming the flow of migrants to neighboring EU member states.
The European Union and Serbia have a long and complicated history. An article from the European Council on Foreign Relations sums up their relationship nicely: “How do we in Serbia see the EU? The simple answer is ‘about the same as we in Serbia are seen by the EU’ - with lots of prejudice, without understanding the wider context, and framed with the perceptions and memories from the 1990s.”
The author is not incorrect, as when survey participants were asked if they in favor of the Yugoslavia Federal Republic (Serbia and Montenegro) joining the EU, Eurobarometer results showed only 31% support on average from the EU. Those most strongly against the prospect of Serbia joining the EU are Austria, Germany, and France, with the only northern European member state with a majority in favor being Sweden. Given the current troubles the EU is having dealing with its existing illiberal democracies, Hungary and to a lesser extent Poland, the benefits of the EU expressing support for Serbia joining the EU when ⅔ of EU citizens are against that prospect does not make sense. While Serbia is of geopolitical interest to the EU, the fact remains that the political goodwill of EU citizens is lacking, as are the abilities of Serbia under the Vucic administration - currently likely to be a stable factor in Serb politics for years to come - to meet EU standards of accession. Therefore, the question must be raised: why and how are the EU and Serbia continuing to integrate while balancing their respective relationships with Russia?