EU-Serbia relations

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Serbia, the 'core country' of the former Yugoslavia, is now firmly on track to join the EU after a series of fratricidal wars in the nineties tested the international community's resolve and engaged considerable diplomatic and military resources.

In the wake of the partition of Yugoslavia, ethnic tensions, fomented by nationalist political leaders in the Balkans, degenerated into direct confrontations and wars. Conflicts successively opposed ethnic Serbs against Croats (1991-1995), Serbs against Bosniaks and Croats (1992-1995) and Serbs against Kosovars (1998-1999).

The repercussions of these conflicts have not yet been fully absorbed by Serbia, nor by other states stemming from the former Yugoslavia.

The unilateral declaration of independence by the Kosovo authorities in February 2008, the instability of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the genocide lawsuit filed by Croatian authorities against Serbia and border disputes are all elements which are likely to impinge on Serbia's EU application if left unresolved.

Serbia has changed names a number of times in recent years after losing parts of its territory. Until May 2006, the country formed a loose federation with Montenegro. Following a referendum, 55.4% of the Monetenegrin population voted in favour of full partition. This took place peacefully despite problems related to double citizenship.

Serbia is strategically positioned in the Balkan Peninsula and on the Pannonian Plain. Despite now being a landlocked country, its good relations with Montenegro allow Serbia to maintain easy access to the Adriatic Sea. Moreover, Serbia's central position, coupled with the fact that it borders with eight other countries and is crossed by the Danube River, make it a key crossroads for trade between Western and Eastern Europe.

The magnetism of this geopolitical vantage point is supplemented by existing free trade agreements that Serbia has signed with Russia, the European Union and other Balkan countries that subscribe to the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA).

Since 2000, Serbia has been gradually embarking on a process of democratic consolidation, introducing a system of pluralist democracy that aims to respect minorities and freedom of speech.

The biggest setback during the normalisation process was the assassination on 12 March 2003 of Prime Minister Zoran Djindji?, a staunch opponent of Slobodan Miloševi? in the 1990s and a charismatic reformist politician.

Serbia's EU relations formally began in 1999 when the country was included in the Stabilisation and Association process for the Western Balkans. The 2000 Feira European Council consolidated the EU membership aspirations of these countries, declaring that they should be considered as "potential candidate countries".

Serbia's Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) is a central part of its Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP), but the implementation of the scheme has been repeatedly blocked or postponed by the Netherlands due to its insistence that war criminals Ratko Mladi? and Goran Hadži? are arrested first.

Faced with this resistance, Serbia started implementing the agreement unilaterally on 1 January 2009. The Dutch position can be partly explained by the fact the country hosts the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), But can also be put down to bad memories from the recent past.

The Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995, when an estimated 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed by the army of Republika Srpska and other paramilitary units, took place despite the presence of 400 armed Dutch peacekeepers in the area. Following an investigation, the Dutch government accepted partial responsibility and the second Wim Kok government resigned in 2002. Ever since, the capture of Mladi? and Hadži? has ranked highly among Dutch priorities (EURACTIV 23/04/08).

To avoid weakening the reformist government in Belgrade, Serbia was given the opportunity to join a visa liberalisation scheme with the EU on 19 December 2009 under the 'White Schengen' programme. Citizens of Yugoslavia enjoyed freedom to travel throughout Europe, but the country was put on the Schengen 'blacklist' in the 1990s. 

Serbia's EU application was filed on 22 December 2009 under the auspices of the Swedish EU Presidency. The move appears to be fine-tuned with the EU institutional timetable: the Spanish EU Presidency - which began on 1 January 2010 – views favourably the application of Serbia.

On 1 March 2012 Serbia clinched its status as an EU candidate country at a Brussels summit after Romania dropped its opposition to Serbia's accession. 

Spain is one of five EU countries which do not recognise Kosovo (EURACTIV 27/01/10).


Relations between Serbia and its southern breakaway region of Kosovo will be a test case for Serbia's EU bid (EURACTIV 25/01/10). The EU, mindful not to repeat the problem posed by the accession of a divided Cyprus in 2004, is unlikely to decide on Serbia's membership before the territorial problem is solved.

Serbia was at war with Kosovo in 1998-1999. It endured NATO air strikes from March to June 1999 after the failure of the Rambouillet Conference in March that year. When Miloševi? capitulated, NATO's KFOR forces entered Kosovo. Since 10 June 1999 the region has been administered by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), and since 2008 it has been assisted by EULEX, the European Union's rule-of-law mission in the breakaway region.

On 17 February 2008 the assembly of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Since then, Kosovo has attempted to gain legitimacy as a fully-fledged state by embarking on a process of recognition by other countries.

By the end of 2009, 34% of the countries in the UN had recognised Kosovo, mainly NATO and EU member states. Yet within the European bloc, Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus refused to recognise the sovereignty of the former Serbian province. Spain, for instance, is concerned that such a move would encourage separatists in Catalonia and the Basque region.

EULEX, the initial objective of which was to take over from UNMIK, was put in place as a result of a compromise with Serbia, which demanded that the mission be deployed with the blessing of the UN Security Council. Western nations also agreed that the mission would be "status neutral," meaning it would not make Kosovo's split from Serbia official and would not implement the UN's Ahtisaari plan (EURACTIV 28/10/08). 

In recent years Serbia and Kosovo appeared to move their dispute to a diplomatic level. In December 2009, Serbia challenged Kosovo's declaration of independence before the International Court of Justice (EURACTIV 1/12/09). Both parties hope that the ICJ ruling will determine the final status of the breakaway region.

Meanwhile, the bilateral dispute between Serbia and Kosovo also has repercussions in the wider Western Balkan region. Serbia recently decided to recall its ambassador from Montenegro after the latter decided to establish diplomatic ties with Kosovo. More recently, Serbian President Tadi? boycotted the inauguration ceremony of Croatia's new president, Ivo Josipovi?, due to the presence of Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu. In addition, Serbia refuses to sit at the negotiating table with Kosovar authorities and insists that its former province should be represented by UNMIK.


Serbia and Croatia fought bitterly during the fratricidal Balkan wars of the 1990s but their battles now take place in court.

On 2 July 1999, Croatia took Serbia to the International Court of Justice, accusing Belgrade of genocide. Serbia reciprocated on 4 January 2010, with a specific focus on the operations carried out by Croatian forces during Operation Storm (4-8 August 1995; EURACTIV 12/01/10).

Despite the bitterness, relations between the two countries appear to be thawing. In Croatia, the recent election of Ivo Josipovi?, a social democrat, has opened a window of opportunity to solve genocide accusations politically.

In the immediate aftermath of the election of Josipovi?, the Serbian government pledged to issue a declaration formally condemning the events of Srebrenica, when more than 8,000 Bosniaks were killed.

Moreover, with one eye on the finishing line in its EU accession process, Croatia said it would try its utmost to help other Balkan countries join the EU by providing them with examples of national laws that have been adapted to conform with European legislation (EURACTIV 08/12/09).

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Serbia has a special relationship with Bosnia and Herzegovina, since Serbs are the majority ethnic group in the Republika Srpska and are one of the country's three 'constituent peoples'.

However, tensions between ethnic Serbs and the international community have surfaced in recent years. The Republika Srpska appears to be pushing for secession and opposes Western plans for constitutional reform of the country. Indeed, since the 1995 Dayton Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina has to some extent been a Western protectorate.

The danger, political analysts warn, is that a possible fragmentation of Bosnia might have spillover effect across the region. In what sounded like a warning shot, Stjepan Mesic, the outgoing president of Croatia, claimed in January 2010 that if the Repubkia Srpska were to organise a referendum to join Serbia, Zagreb would be forced to intervene militarily.

However, Serbia seems to have no intention of encouraging separatists in Bosnia. Speaking at the UN Security Council on 24 January 2010, Serbian President Boris Tadi? claimed that "being a responsible member of the international community, Serbia will continue to fully support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina and will strongly oppose any attempts at partitioning this or any other member state of the United Nations".

ICTY and the Netherlands

Serbia's EU bid will also continuously be tested by its cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague.

This issue is particularly dear to the Netherlands, which is hosting the ICTY (see 'Policy Summary').

The EU has already signed an interim Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia, offering the country technical assistance and a long-term membership perspective. But the agreement has not entered into force yet as a result of a Dutch government veto on its implementation.

The Dutch veto is currently the only remaining obstacle to the entry into force of the SAA, which may offer other benefits including tariff-free access to some EU markets and greater financial assistance.

Some EU member states pushed for the SAA to enter into force when war criminal Radovan Karadži? was arrested in July 2008.

The Dutch authorities are also awaiting confirmation from the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, of Belgrade's "full cooperation" with the court. In a December 2009 report, Brammertz said that "requests for access to documents and archives were being dealt with more expeditiously and effectively".

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen described the report as "positive" and said "in June [2010] we will re-evaluate if we can ratify the [SAA] agreement".

However, the Hague insists it will maintain a veto over Serbia's EU accession talks unless two wanted war criminals, Ratko Mladi? and Goran Hadži?, are arrested and handed over to the war crimes tribunal.

Support for the EU: Peoples and parties

Support for EU membership in Serbia runs high. According to a November 2009 report by the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy (CESID), 71% of Serbs support EU entry, up from 61% in October 2009.

One reason for this surge in enthusiasm could be the country's application for EU membership, which was officially filed in December 2009 (EURACTIV 04/01/10).

At political level, mainstream parties are consistently becoming more committed to the EU project and are realigning their policies towards this goal. The ruling Democratic Party is already a full member of the Party of European Socialists, while the Socialist Party of Serbia, formerly led by Slobodan Miloševi?, has made a U-turn on its EU position and its leader, Ivica Da?i?, is now well accepted in European socialist circles.

Centre-right parties, meanwhile, have not made significant electoral breakthroughs in Serbia in recent years.

Recent developments concerning the Serbian Radical Party are of particular interest. Radical Party President Vojislav Šešelj is on trial for war crimes at the ICTY . Former deputy president Tomislav Nikoli?, who now heads the Serbian Progressive Party, visited Brussels in 2009 and signalled a change of course, accepting EU integration as the country's goal. Speaking in the Hague, Šešelj called Nikoli? a traitor.

Political concerns

The European Commission's 2009 progress report on Serbia highlighted considerable progress made in stabilising the party system. "Parliament adopted a new Law on Political Parties in May 2009, a fundamental piece of legislation which has established clearer and stricter rules for registration and which will reduce the number of parties, some of which exist only on paper," the report says.

The Commission nevertheless criticised existing political practices. "Most parliamentary parties have concluded individual agreements with their MPs on blank resignations. Legislation required by the Constitution has not been adopted. The current procedure for signing blank resignations is, therefore, not legally regulated," says the report.

Serbia was praised by Brussels for maintaining governmental stability and for having substantially improved its human rights record.

A major concern remains the fight against corruption. An Anti-Corruption Agency was formally set up in April 2009, but it has not delivered significant results yet.

Other areas where Serbia is required to do more are public procurement, privatisation, taxation, customs, licensing and protection of whistleblowers.

Economic prospects

Serbia was hit badly by the economic and financial crises. According to the country's statistical office, the economy contracted by 2.9% in 2009. This followed years of steady growth at 5-8%. Nevertheless, this figure is better than earlier IMF estimates, which predicted a contraction of 4%.

A country heavily reliant on foreign lending, Serbia was hit particularly hard by the credit crunch, the Commission report noted, saying more borrowing would be needed to inject fresh money into the economy. An initial IMF loan request of 420 million euros in December 2008 was revised upwards to 2.9 billion euros the following April.

Unemployment remains high in Serbia at 16.4% of the active population in April 2009. The employment rate was a mere 50.8% in 2008, compared to an EU average of 65.9%, according to Eurostat.

When assessing Serbia's capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces, the Commission offered a bleak view. According to the report, the economic crisis "contributed to creating a less stable and less predictable climate for decision-making by economic operators. The functioning of market mechanisms remained hampered by distortions, legal uncertainty, heavy state involvement in the production of private goods and insufficient competition," it said.

The European Union contributes to investments in the Serbian economy via the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA). 1.18 billion euros of IPA funds have been earmarked for the period 2007-2012, with 198.7 million euros set aside for 2010 alone.

Serbia is not yet a member of the World Trade Organisation but is expected to join by 2013. Serbia had expected to join in 2010 but its application was sidetracked with members citing that work still needed to be done on some specific issues. These included trading rights, import licensing, customs, sanitary issues, intellectual property and services. Members encouraged Serbia to intensify its talks on market access, which had become an increasingly important area of negotiation for Serbia's accession.

Members requested clarification on some of these areas in 2011. The Working Party urged Serbia to finalise as many bilateral agreements on market access for goods and services as possible with other WTO members. The EU and Serbia signed a bilateral agreement for Serbia's accession to the WTO on 11 January 2011Accession would strengthen the country's role as a free-trade corridor between Europe, the Balkans and Russia, regions with which it already has free trade agreements. 

Speaking at the UN General Assembly on 25 September 2009, Serbian President Boris Tadi? stated that "Kosovo's UDI [Unilateral Declaration of Independence] is an attempt to impose a 19th-century outcome to a 21st-century challenge".

"Serbia will never, under any circumstances, implicitly or explicitly, recognise the unilateral declaration of independence of the ethnic-Albanian authorities of our southern province. We will continue to vigorously defend our integrity in a non-confrontational manner, using all peaceful means at our disposal. That is why, from the very onset of this grave crisis, Serbia ruled out the use of force. We chose to respond to Kosovo's UDI with utmost responsibility and restraint. Serbia opted for a diplomatic approach, the result of which is that a vast majority of UN member states have refrained from recognising Kosovo's UDI. They have continued to abide by their UN Charter obligations to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of my country."

Commenting on the Kosovo issue on 16 January 2010 for the New York Times, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremi?, stated that "this place, Kosovo, is our Jerusalem; you just can't treat it any other way than our Jerusalem".

According to Radio Srbija, Jeremi? also claimed on 26 January 2010 that the International Civilian Office, led by Peter Feith, "is inexistent for Serbia because it is in discord with international law. We can hold talks with EULEX or anyone else with a legitimate mandate in the province, in line with UN Resolution 1244".

He emphasised that the 'Strategy for Kosmet' [Kosovo and Metohia] has not been agreed or supported by the EU and should hence be considered as a unilateral move.

Speaking at the World Affairs Council on 12 January 2010, Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu stated that "even though the suffering of our people was great, Miloševi?'s plan failed because NATO intervened militarily and expelled the Serb soldiers and paramilitaries from Kosovo. NATO's intervention in Kosovo was without doubt a unique opportunity, not only in the history of the alliance, but in human history overall, because it was the first intervention for humane reasons to save a people from extermination".

Newly-elected Croatian President Ivo Josipovi?, referring to Tadi?'s decision to boycott his inauguration ceremony, stated on Radio B92 on 21 January 2010 that he "would not like to read a lecture to President Tadi?. He conducts Serbia's policy. It is his right, and the fact I think this is not a good move is my problem".

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, following a positive report from UN Prosecutor Serge Brammertz, claimed that he has "no desire to be more of a prosecutor than the prosecutor himself".

"But we mustn't lose sight of the ultimate goal: arresting the fugitives Mladi? and Hadži?. Serbia's cooperation has brought us one step closer. This is a good reason to make a tangible gesture," he added.

Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero stated that his country's position regarding the unilateral declaration of independence of the territory of Kosovo was already known: non-recognition. "We have maintained this position and we will maintain it in the future," he said.

Speaking as his country assumed the rotating EU presidency in January 2010, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said: "We will do everything to continue the integration of the entire [Balkan] region in the EU."

Confirming that talks would also touch upon the 'Strategy for Northern Kosovo' tabled by Pristina and the International Civilian Mission, Moratinos announced that the EU would attempt to find a solution for Northern Kosovo "for everybody's benefit".

Spanish Ambassador to Serbia Íñigo de Palacio España stated: "If it is confirmed in June that a complete dedication exists to finding Hadži? and Mladi?, why would we stop Serbia's European perspective? We hope that the 27 member states of the EU will be able to reach an agreement in June."

Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), recently said: "Since the last briefing to the Council, Serbia's cooperation with my Office has continued to progress. Prosecution requests to access documents and archives are being dealt with more expeditiously and effectively. It is important that the authorities continue to provide this level of assistance, which will remain crucial during current and future trial and appeals work."

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said: "The Serbian government remains committed to advancing on its European agenda, and there have been a number of positive developments recently. It will be essential, however, as the country is increasingly feeling the negative effects of the global financial crisis, that key reform measures are not overlooked. The process of structural adjustment must continue and the country needs to follow through its commitments, particularly in the area of the judiciary and the rule of law."

EU Special Representative to Kosovo Peter Feith said: "Since a European future unites Belgrade, Pristina and the EU, and the EU has assumed the leadership role, the EU might be best placed to provide the channel for communication between Belgrade and Pristina. If the intention is to achieve positive results, then we have the instruments in place to help bring about such an outcome. The overall objective however remains direct good neighbourly contacts between the two sides."

"Europeans may be too tired and divided to play a significant role in world politics, which could have dire consequences for Europe in this time of global realignment," warned former German Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer

"But even if Europe abdicates its global role, the EU cannot forget about order within its immediate neighbourhood, or hope that others will solve their problems for them. The Balkans are a part of Europe, and Europeans must solve the region's problems. Serbia's application for EU accession provides an historic opportunity to achieve just that," he said.  

  • 11 June 1999: End of NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia in response to ethnic cleansing and atrocities by Serbian military in Kosovo.
  • 1999: EU begins Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) for Serbia.
  • 5 Oct. 2000: Slobodan Miloševi? falls from power.
  • June 2000: Feira European Council states that all SAP countries are 'potential candidates' for EU membership.
  • Nov. 2000: Zagreb summit introduces SAP for five countries of Western Balkans, Serbia included.
  • 31 March 2001: Slobodan Miloševi? arrested and sent to Hague tribunal. He died during detention on 11 March 2006.
  • 12 March 2003: Reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindji? assassinated.
  • June 2003: Thessaloniki European Council confirms SAP as the EU's policy for Western Balkans. EU perspectives of these countries reiterated.
  • 27 June 2004: Reformist Boris Tadi? elected president of Serbia. He was re-elected for a five-year term in 2008.
  • Oct. 2004: Council conclusions begin Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) process.
  • Oct. 2005: Launch of SAA negotiations.
  • 3 May 2006: SAA negotiations blocked due to lack of progress on Serbia's co-operation with International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
  • 21 May 2006: Montenegro declares independence.
  • 13 June 2007: SAA negotiations with Serbia resumed, following Belgrade's clear commitment to achieve full cooperation with ICTY.
  • 1 Jan. 2008: Entry into force of Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreement between Serbia and EU.
  • 17 Feb. 2008: Kosovo declares independence.
  • 29 Apr. 2008: SAA and Interim Agreement on Trade between Serbia and EU signed in Luxembourg.
  • 7 July 2008: Formation of new government which puts European integration at top of agenda.
  • 21 July 2008: Arrest of war criminal Radovan Karadži?.
  • 15 Sep. 2008: Netherlands freezes SAA and trade part of SAA.
  • 16 Oct. 2008: Serbian government unilaterally begins implementing trade part of Interim Trade Agreement with EU from 1 Jan. 2009.
  • 15 July 2009: European Commission proposes to grant Serbia visa liberalisation.
  • 30 Nov. 2009: European Commission puts Serbia on 'White Schengen' list.
  • 19 Dec. 2009: Visa-free travel to EU for Serbia comes into effect.
  • 22 Dec. 2009: Serbia officially applies for EU membership.

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