Every European country (what constitutes one is up for discussion) has the right to apply for EU membership. This right is based on Treaties of Rome, and also on all the succeeding constitutional treaties of the EU. The European Union has, however, adopted a number of standards which regulate its enlargement via the accession of new member states. Their object is to encourage the harmonization of the institutions of the joining country with those of the EU. When it comes to the Western Balkan states, the procedure requires first the negotiation, signing and adoption of a Stabilization and Association Agreement, and following this the initiation of membership negotiations. The Agreement is necessary because the EU is first and foremost a free trade zone, and by implementing the Agreement this zone is broadened to the country which signs it. If this market integration is successful the harmonization of other institutions, according to the ideology which the EU is based on, will be simpler.
This is the context in which the statements, repeated several times by the European Commissioner for Enlargement Ollie Rehn, should be understood. Serbia, naturally, can apply for EU membership, but in accordance with the established procedure, it would be better if it first took the steps above, most importantly implementing the Agreement and meeting the political requirements, so that application can be reviewed meritoriously. These steps are there because the European Union does not wish to make negative decisions when faced with a membership application. The best interest of the EU, and probably of the applicant country too, is that the whole process unfolds in such a way as to make a positive outcome predictable and practically unavoidable. As we can see from the rushed signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, which was done to help the pro-European alternative in the Serbian elections, there is no point building relations burdened by disputes and misunderstanding
Why then do Serbian policy makers still intend to turn in the application to join the EU before those steps are taken? The reason has to do with domestic policy. It is their intention to convince the Serbian public that the European Union is responsible for the slow progress of the Serbian integration, and not this or that Serbian administration. The scene is set by statements claiming that the EU has two different sets of standards for Croatia and Serbia; the statements about how some member state’s internal affairs (meaning the “obsession” of The Netherlands with the Srebrenica massacre and the apprehension of the main suspect) will not be allowed to hold back the Serbian progress towards the EU; Serbia is tacitly expected to recognize Kosovo before its candidature is reviewed and so on. Olli Rehn’s statements, it is pointed out, are themselves proof of the EU’s lack of readiness to start the process of Serbia’s integration, and that Serbian foreign and domestic policies are not to blame for the delay. By applying for membership the EU will be put to the test. If the process is initiated, it will be represented as a major diplomatic success, and if it is not, whatever they want to prove about the EU’s character will be proven.
This strategy will not only be a winning one regardless of the outcome, but it will also be a way to kill two birds with one stone, which is the goal of any policy which finds itself at a dead-end. Still, can there be problems? The biggest problem is the motive for rushing with the application. This administration won the election with the promise that it will speed up the EU integration and that it will not push the country into self-isolation, like the opposition did. In the meantime it considerably moved away from the EU and substantially increased the danger of Serbia’s isolation. Furthermore, the anti-European propaganda, seen above all in the explicit or implied assertion that the EU holds anti-Serbian views, led to a drop-off in the support for pro-European policy. If the support continues to decline as a consequence of the problems with the Serbian candidature, it can have two negative consequences.
On the one hand, there cannot be pro-European politics if there is no support for that kind of politics. The nonexistence of support has a negative effect on the EU’s readiness to engage in Serbia’s association. The social and political consensus to strive for EU integration is a fundamental requirement for a country to be regarded as a serious candidate for membership. If there is no consensus, the integration process is pointless. On the other hand, the decline of support for pro European policy leads to the decline of support for the political parties who represent this policy. Proportionality, the Democratic Party will lose more, because either its pro-European policy will be regarded as unsuccessful or its supporters will find that the party had given up on the policy they voted for. Both these consequences are unavoidable, regardless of the success of putting the blame on the European Union.
The creators of Serbian foreign and domestic policy, I suppose, reckon that the possible dispute with the EU will not harm them much, because their political position is comfortable, due to the popularity of confrontation with the world, and because both the liberal and the nationalist oppositions are weak. As far as the foreign affairs minister can be understood, the strategy by which Serbia is always about to solve its problems, but in the meantime its left on its own, is a desirable one. According to him, Serbia is waiting for a new Congress of Berlin, and until it comes along the strategic support of Russia will do. In this context, it all boils down to putting the blame on others while the benefits are attributed to the current Serbian policy makers.
The only thing that is not clear is whether the circumstances will cooperate. We know from recent history that this kind of politics, which Milošević basically invented, can have serious consequences if the circumstances are not favorable. In the time of unfavorable circumstances the voters tended to take the side of the pro-European and pro-Western alternatives. This is why the Democratic Party is in power, and this is why they are back in power. The voters figured out that confrontation with the world is useless, so they voted for the ones who wish to cooperate with the world. Naturally, it would have been better if the Serbian voters voted for a positive cooperation strategy, not for the negative. So it is only when we hit rock bottom, but we should keep in mind that the circumstances are such that the water is deep and we are nearing rock bottom.
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