The use of anti-EU language by the authorities despite their intention to join the union was one of the charges leveled against the Serbian authorities in the report that was accepted by the European Parliament.
Serbia’s foreign policy, according to President Aleksandar Vucic and his officials, is to join the EU, yet individuals in positions of influence frequently use rhetoric that is hostile to the EU. The justification is rather clear: Serbia is a split country where a sizable portion of the populace still views Russia as a close ally and is wary of the West and Western ideals.
The government can balance its path toward EU membership and appease those segments of the populace that disagree with this approach by permitting voices from within the establishment to express a variety of diverse perspectives, including blatantly pro-Russia ones.
However, if popular fury is stoked against the EU as a convenient target, it is difficult to contain, as British politicians discovered their cost in 2016. Years of anti-EU rhetoric in the UK prepared the atmosphere for the Leave campaign’s victory in the Brexit vote.
In the late 1990s, the UK was talking about adopting the euro and methods to lead the EU. Two decades later, it had already left the bloc. Serbia was a reformer with plenty of zeal and appeared destined to be among the first Western Balkan nations to join the EU. Serbia was a reform-minded nation that appeared likely to be among the first from the Western Balkans to join the EU. Politicians will now have a harder time than ever convincing the populace to accept the onerous reforms needed to join the bloc, the most painful of which being, of course, normalizing relations with Kosovo. Support for admittance is currently at its lowest level in the region.
APPEALING TO THE MASSES
Vucic’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), has been in office since 2012 and under whose leadership he served as first prime minister and then president for nine years. The populist party not only aspires to win over a wide variety of people, but it also has several minor coalition allies, the largest of which is the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS), that appeal to an even broader spectrum of perspectives.
While doing so, government officials can present themselves to Serbia’s Western allies as well-intentioned reformers who are unfortunately limited in their efforts by a vociferous nationalist minority.
The inclusive “four pillars” strategy of fostering positive ties with Russia, China, the EU, and the US has also been used to shape foreign policy. This strategy occasionally prompted Western diplomats to explode in annoyance, but it suited Serbia even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine polarized the northern hemisphere. By claiming to be friends with Russia and maintaining Moscow’s backing for keeping Kosovo out of the UN, Belgrade could pander to the right-wing while simultaneously pursuing EU membership, getting China to fund pricey infrastructure projects.
The recent pandemic was the pinnacle of this multi-vector policy, with Serbia emerging as one of the first mass vaccine recipients after obtaining COVID-19 vaccines from several sources. Serbia was distributing vaccines to its friends throughout the Western Balkans while other European countries were having difficulty immunizing their populations.
Naturally, this strategy proved much tougher to uphold after Russia invaded Ukraine. Serbia has come under increasing pressure to side with the West and impose sanctions on Russia. Serbia’s continued refusal to support EU foreign policy and the imposition of sanctions were criticized in the report voted by the European Parliament. It was urged to bear the consequences by having its admission process stalled. The EU should “reconsider the extent of its financial assistance to Serbia if support for anti-democratic politics continues” and financing should be tied to conformity with the strategic goals and interests of the EU, according to the recommendation.
TURNING AGAINST THE EU
According to polls, the Serbian government’s stance on Russia and the sanctions is generally in accord with public opinion. Most Serbs view Russia as a friendly country and oppose sanctions; many believe that NATO or the West as a whole, rather than Russia, is to blame for the war.
Support for joining the EU has waned in the interim. As a result of the slow admission process, this has been observed in other Western Balkan nations to some extent in recent years. But in Serbia, where even a quick scan of the pro-government tabloids reveals a profusion of anti-EU language, it has grown especially acute.
According to a press release from the European Parliament issued after the debate, MEPs “are concerned about the recent decrease in public support for EU membership in Serbia, which they consider is a result of long-standing anti-EU/pro-Russian political rhetoric spread via government-controlled media and government officials.” Additionally, it denounces “attacks by public officials and politicians against the EU and some of its members, particularly France and Germany.”
The report claims that popular support for Serbia’s EU membership has reached an all-time low and is on the rise in tandem with support for the Russian government. According to several polls, the majority of people in the nation are currently against joining the EU. This, according to the report, “is a result of a long-standing anti-EU/pro-Russian political rhetoric widely disseminated via government-controlled media as well as by government officials and of a gross failure from officials to face and come to terms with Serbia’s past.” The process of joining has already come to a standstill.
It expresses sadness that “the highest Serbian officials have portrayed the EU’s calls for Serbia to respect commitments as a candidate country as blackmail” and attributes the drop in support for EU membership to “the increasing presence of other international actors.” While this is going on, “publicly funded media outlets, frequently quoting office-holders, contribute to the dissemination of anti-EU rhetoric in Serbia.”
The report, which is supported by a large majority of MEPs and calls for a shift in strategy in Serbia, exhorts officials “to actively communicate the benefits of EU membership as a matter of priority.”
It is noteworthy that eurosceptic politicians throughout the EU have been much less vocal in the aftermath of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the economic catastrophe, and the ongoing political ructions that followed. This is likely due to their fear that the exits they have been hinting at will happen. However, this cautionary lesson hasn’t been taken seriously enough because the Serbian authorities are under a particular set of pressures.