Is the EU losing Serbia?

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

Belgrade has shown its willingness to work with the EU during the refugee crisis. Will the EU reciprocate on accession? [Filip Maljkovi?/Flickr]

Serbia has been at the heart of the ongoing refugee crisis. It is time for the EU to reward its actions by opening the first negotiation chapter, writes Stevan Randjelovic.

Stevan Randjelovic is an independent EU Affairs Adviser.

As thousands of refugees arrive at Europe’s borders, the rest of the world and Europeans themselves doubt the ability of Brussels and EU member states to handle the crisis. The credibility of the EU has been called into question. The bloc that once used human rights as a bargaining chip in its political and trade negotiations is now under the spotlight due to its inability to handle the influx of refugees and respect international human rights laws.

The EU has always provided the world and membership candidate countries, such as Serbia, with a value leadership. However, Belgrade now seems to feel that the EU is losing credibility to preach and teach how things should be done. This is due to weak action on the part of the EU on the refugee crisis, and due to poor handling of the crisis by Hungary and Croatia, both EU member states, and Serbia’s neighbours.

To put things into perspective, Brussels has always had a ‘golden carrot and stick’ approach towards Serbia; Belgrade could advance through its EU integration only if certain political, legal and economic conditions were met. This policy allowed the Serbia-Kosovo agreement to be signed, normalising Belgrade-Pristina relations. It was a bitter pill for Belgrade to swallow. The majority of EU conditions are bitter, but nonetheless Serbia kept on track with the golden carrot on the horizon; EU membership.

EU membership negotiations with Belgrade were initiated in January 2014, but not a single chapter has been opened so far. There were always promises and new hurdles for Belgrade to surpass. It is a textbook example of the EU normative power, the one the whole world had looked up to, especially Serbia. For Serbs the EU is a constant promise of a better life and a moral superlative of how things should be done. Public opinion polls conducted in June 2015 demonstrated that 49% of Serbian citizens supported the adhesion of Serbia to the block.

In the meantime, EU member state Hungary started building fences and deploying tear gas on its border with Serbia. The EU reacted with confused voices, words of regret and limited action. Croatia then decided to close the border for cargo vehicles causing of millions of euros in damage to Serbia’s crumbling economy. Serbia responded by doing the same, and then Croatia blocked all vehicles with Serbian number plates crossing the border. This issue is likely to be resolved soon, and it is important to note Croatia-Serbia relations are still stained from the Yugoslavian civil wars.

When EU interior ministers finally agreed on the relocation of 120,000 refugees from Italy and Greece, help for the Western Balkans was barely mentioned. On the other hand, EU leaders agreed to organise a conference on 8 October, on how to help the Balkans better cope with the crisis. The EU Civil Protection Mechanism was also launched by Belgrade. The Commission announced €17 million in aid for Serbia and Macedonia. The Serbian economy has already suffered damage measured in millions of euros due to closed borders in the north with Hungary, and in the west, with Croatia.

What is even more surprising is a statement coming from Natasha Bertaud, the Commission’s spokesperson, saying that all EU member states have the right to return unsuccessful asylum claimants to Serbia according to the EU-Serbia re-admission agreement, even though all of them came through Greece. Luckily, it seems that there is no political will for this step to be taken.

Brussels should be more responsible and use the 8 October conference to offer Serbia and Macedonia far more generous financial and institutional support to cope with the new flows of people. The EU member states have to commit clearly and publicly that border closing must not have any economic impact on the countries of the Western Balkans. The European Commission has to act with urgency when there is hint that an EU member state could use economic measures to impact on a country simply letting refugees cross its territory.

Finally, Serbia has been waiting for a long time for the opening of the first negotiation chapter. It is time for the EU to show its good will and reward Belgrade’s responsible handling of the crisis when Serbia upheld European values while some EU member states, bound by EU treaties, have not.

When Serbian citizens were asked in June 2015 what the EU represented to them, 17% said that it was a better future for young people, 16% highlighted better job prospects, and 12% emphasised free movement within the bloc. With the never-ending economic crisis, the rebuilding of border fences, and soaring youth unemployment, the question is if the European Union losing Serbia. Belgrade might seem like it does not have an alternative, but it is up to the Commission to take decisive action that would make Serbia’s leadership think twice.

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