Analysis: Vucic’s balancing act with the EU

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade, Serbia, 15 December 2020. [EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC]

Serbia’s progress towards the EU should not be expected as long as Aleksandar Vučić is the most powerful politician in the country, writes Darko Čačić, in an article he submitted to EURACTIV Bulgaria.

Darko Čačić is a Serbian journalist working in Belgrade.

Serbian President Vučić and other senior officials, unreservedly loyal to him, are persistently striving to convince Serbian citizens that the stalemate in the country’s European integration process is not the fault of Belgrade.

Serbian authorities deny guilt for the deadlock in negotiations with the EU, claiming they have done everything in their power, while accusing the Union of insincerity regarding enlargement in the near future.

After the EU-Serbia intergovernmental conference, held in Luxembourg on 22 June, where once again none of the negotiating chapter was opened, Vučić said Serbia “had made a big progress on its European path.”

He added the result is missing because it’s “obvious that there is enlargement fatigue” within the EU at the moment.

“We’ve done everything the EU requested from us, and nothing has happened. We should keep working, and if they want (to open chapters), we will thank them, if they don’t, we will thank them too. We will compare our growth rates at the end of the year,” said Vučić, alluding that Serbia will have stronger economic growth than EU countries.

Vučić once again made an unrealistic assessment regarding Serbia’s progress on its road to the EU, saying the country can “ensure the opening of all negotiating chapters” by the next presidential election, which must be held before April 2022. Vučić also relativised the EU’s objections to Serbia, claiming that “there are objections involving 90% of the EU member states as well.”

He noted that “nothing depends on Serbia”, pointing out North Macedonia, which still hasn’t opened negotiations with the EU, although it fulfilled all requirements from the Commission. Vučić rejected the allegations that certain EU member states block the Western Balkans countries’ progress on the European path.

“Those stories that Bulgaria, Croatia or Romania prevent our progress, you know what you can do with that! It is obvious that there is no desire for enlargement in the EU at this moment,” the Serbian President said.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabić followed in the footsteps of Vučić, her party boss. She too said that “there are always some political games” in the process of joining the EU.

Brnabić said the entire region of the Western Balkans was frustrated with the EU because some member states oppose enlargement despite supporting it verbally. “Whatever you do, it’s never enough. I think this is a political game that will be counterproductive because the people you keep criticising will get tired at some point,” Brnabić added.

Serbian Minister in charge of the country’s EU accession, Jadranka Joksimović, also aligned with her party boss Vučić. She put the blame on “unpreparedness of the EU” for another non-opening of chapters in the accession negotiations with Serbia.

What actually happened on 22 June is that the EU only acknowledged what Serbia had done a long time ago, by opening cluster 1 which refers to the fundamental values. According to the new methodology in negotiations with the EU, the chapters are grouped into six clusters. Serbia began accession negotiations with the EU in January 2014.

During the negotiating process with Serbia, the EU opened all cluster 1 chapters from 2015 to 2018. At the intergovernmental conference, several EU member states did not give their consent for any new cluster opening, due to insufficient progress of Serbia, primarily in the area of ​​the rule of law.

The progress of Serbia on its road to the EU is not blocked by Brussels. It is prevented by the state of the rule of law and democracy in the country. Although they have abandoned aggressive rhetoric against the EU in recent months, the Serbian authorities have simulated the implementation of reforms.

The essence of Serbia’s path to the EU is the independence of the judiciary, but it will not be ensured by the Government-initiated process of amending the Constitution.

The political control of the judiciary will not be revoked by constitutional amendments, it will only be transferred from the Parliament of Serbia to the High Judicial Council and the State Prosecutorial Council, two bodies under control by persons elected by Parliament.

The main reason for the lack of Serbia’s progress on its path to the EU is the fact Vučić maintains a strong grip on the country. His Serbian Progressive Party continues to erode media freedom and backtrack on democratic reforms.

Last year, Freedom House, the democracy watchdog, criticised “years of increasing state capture, abuse of power and strongman tactics employed by Aleksandar Vučić.”

Serbia will not take any steps toward the EU as long as its leaders lack the political will to implement substantial reforms regarding the rule of law and to improve the state of democracy.

Progress is also hampered by the stalemate in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue under EU auspices, which lacks tangible results for almost three years, as well as Belgrade’s foreign policy balancing and its difficult relationship with the international criminal court in the Hague. The government keeps cultivating strong ties with China and Russia.

Vučić, a former extreme nationalist who declaratively took a pro-European stance, has never been truly fond of the EU’s fundamental values. He became pro-European for purely opportunistic reasons, aware that otherwise, he would stand no chance of ruling the country.

When he acceded to power in 2012, Vučić set accession to the EU as a priority, knowing that the country would otherwise find itself in a very difficult economic situation. Although the majority of his electorate is against the EU, Vučić ensures broader support thanks to his pro-European attitude.

The messages are well-controlled and the views of the government critics do not reach a large percentage of the population, given the weakness of independent media.

However, Vučić will not give up control over social processes either, because those could jeopardize his stay in power. Simply, he is the guarantee that Serbia’s progress towards the EU should not be expected as long as he remains the most powerful politician in the country.

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