Can Serbia Ask The Right Questions Before Facing A Future Within Europe?

As Serbia is granted candidacy to become the newest kid of the EU bloc, the country will face difficult questions and need to resolve many issues. Not only will the work begin to improve and develop Serbia’s political, business and social structures if Serbia is to take up this opportunity to join EU nations, but also the government must fight at the ballot boxes before an increasingly alienated electorate. 

By joining Montenegro, Macedonia and Turkey as candidate countries on the long road towards full membership of the EU, Serbia has set itself many challenges. Croatia has already seen this for itself in almost a decade of measures to make the EU grade. What will be required, but has previously proven hard to achieve, is a clear and open debate on the issues facing everyone in Serbia.

Candidacy should bestow greater stability and opportunity on Serbia, improving stagnant investment and trading conditions that have been stifling growth and have seen unemployment figures shoot up. It should also deliver much-needed EU grants for redevelopment, as used so effectively by Croatia.

Membership of the EU is no great panacea for all of Serbia’s ills and the benefits will not be seen overnight. If Serbia choses this route, it could be a long-term chance to be a more competitive Serbia with a stronger voice and greater economic stability. But there is a long way to go and it will not be an easy ride. As a candidate country, Serbia has its work cut out. It will need to go beyond the efforts it has already made to deliver adequate and significant changes that will bring its laws, processes and practices into line with EU requirements. There is a lot of work to be done and it will call upon Serbia’s politicians, businesses and institutions to make changes that are unlikely to be universally popular.

One area that is likely to cause issue is that Serbia must demonstrate genuine respect for human rights and democracy for all. No longer will Serbia be able to play lip service to democratic principles and then ride rough shod over the rights of unfavoured minorities to satisfy the unforgiving voice of the Church and certain nationalist groups. If Serbia wants to reap the benefits of joining the EU, the people as well as politicians will need to put in place certain changes. Some of the bitterest pills will be harder to swallow.

Serbia’s candidacy can be viewed as an acknowledgment of the country’s efforts to meet certain conditions, as inferred by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy,and of Serbia’s will to improve lagging standards in social equality, free markets and minority rights. But some feel that President Boris Tadić and his pro-European coalition government have already jumped through too many hoops in their bid to satisfy EU leaders. In particular, there has been unpopular pressure on Tadić to establish constructive dialogue with Kosovo, especially after violent clashes between Serbs in northern Kosovo and NATO troops played a role in halting Serbia’s EU progress at a summit in December.

In the typically timely fashion that Tadić has become known for, Serbia agreed a last minute deal with Kosovo that will see greater cooperation and allow Kosovo to participate in regional meetings. To help calm troubles that have erupted in recent months, Tadić again instructed Serbs in northern Kosovo to remove the border roadblocks that have been so problematic.

Even last week the outcome was unclear.  Romania came out of the shadows to make a last ditch attempt to derail Serbia’s journey by highlighting what it saw as failings in the country’s human rights record. Sensing that matters could get out of hand, an eleventh hour agreement was reached to protect Serbia’s 30,000 Romanian-speaking Vlachs and the EU candidacy was sealed, late Thursday.

This was no small success for Tadić, who had staked the future of his government on achieving candidacy. Any further refusal by European ministers to deny the country a chance to take up a place at the table would have brought trouble for the President and his coalition, who have long advocated greater integration with Europe. With elections in a few months, Tadić needed to give himself a strong platform on which to fight and to show that something had been achieved by his efforts, many of which have not been well received at home in the wake of a stalled economy, increasing nationalist fervour and growing social discontent.

It is to be seen whether Tadić can make a strong enough case to deflate the right-wing opposition who openly decry closer ties with Europe and those who would prefer for Belgrade to look towards Moscow for greater partnership. On all sides of the argument, the issues are undoubtedly complex and many feel that they go to the heart of what it means to be Serbian. It is true, there has been some talk about the pros and cons of joining the ranks of Europe, but this has been mainly driven by those who have already made up their minds and who have been more keen to stoke the fires rather than stimulate useful debate around the issues. As usual, scaremongering politicians and shallow-minded naysayers have shouted loudest, and elements in the diaspora have been especially outspoken. Opponents to tighter ties with Europe have used fear and confusion in the electorate to indulge their own nationalist ideals and stymie any considered discussion about the options for Serbia. None of this is particularly constructive and does not allow for informed debate.

One area where tempers will continue to flare is in the reforms that are needed at every level of Serbia’s establishment. While many acknowledge that fundamental change is needed, the general acceptance of systems that have been in place for decades and fronted by the old guard could stifle any reform. With or without the EU, there is a lot in Serbia that could be made fairer, with visible corruption, widespread nepotism and a system of backhanders rooted out once and for all. Again, this will not happen overnight, and changes should be made with or without any future within the EU.

Undoubtedly, though, the main thorn in the side will be Kosovo. This is an incendiary issue and emotions have become inflamed. The electorate has become increasingly edgy over the EU’s apparent pressure on Serbia over the independent state that Belgrade refuses to recognise. This hypersensitive issue that goes so deep has impacted on feeling towards the EU, which has been seen in a marked reduction in approval figures of late. What is widely seen as meddling has played right into the hands of those against closer ties with Europe and threatens to wreck the process still.

What would be in everyone’s best interest now is for clear-headed discussion and open public debate to take place about all the options available to Serbia. People need to hear the arguments, discuss the alternatives and be in a position to make educated decisions about their own future. If that is likely will remain to be seen. If the people want it, especially with elections on the near horizon, they should demand it. It is their right. It is their responsibility.

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