Serbia is a poor fit for EU enlargement plans

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No country has joined the EU since Croatia in 2013. But to judge from the recommendations last Wednesday of the European Commission, there is genuinely new momentum behind the once-stalled project of EU enlargement. Brussels proposes opening entry talks with Ukraine, Moldova and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and making Georgia a membership candidate — a rung lower on the ladder.

Some carefully chosen words qualify the initiative. All potential members — including six Balkan states but most likely not Turkey — are reminded that they must implement the political, economic and administrative reforms needed to make them fit for admission. But the general message is clear: EU enlargement is desirable, and even necessary, because of the dangers confronting Europe after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Take a look at the individual country reports in the commission’s survey, however, and the picture is more ambiguous. No aspirant member is close to meeting all the entry criteria on democracy, the rule of law and economic standards. A glaring example is Serbia, the largest candidate in the Balkans in terms of population and territory.

Serbia, we are told, is doing too little to settle its differences with Kosovo, the Albanian-majority state that declared independence from Belgrade in 2008. Its foreign policy is insufficiently aligned with the EU, in particular because of its closeness to Russia. Serbia has made limited progress in tackling corruption and organised crime. Media independence is weak.

In truth, the commission would have been justified in using even stronger language. The Kosovo dispute is a formidable obstacle to Serbia’s EU entry. But no less serious is the question of whether President Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive party are sincere about wanting to join the 27-nation bloc. A more realistic reading of Serbia’s policies suggests that the ruling elite’s chief objective is simply to stay in power, by restricting political opposition and controlling the judiciary, security apparatus, public sector and media in ways that defy the EU’s basic values. A second aim is to preserve a measure of independence for Serbia by cultivating relations with Russia and China.

Where have these policies led? In July, the US announced sanctions on Aleksandar Vulin, the head of Serbia’s state security agency and a Vučić ally, for alleged involvement in international organised crime, narcotics operations, ties with Russia and “promoting ethno-nationalist narratives that fuel instability in Serbia and the region”.

This accusation against Vulin, who resigned this month, refers to the emergence under Vučić’s rule of the concept of a “srpski svet”, or Serbian world — a notion that recalls President Vladimir Putin’s promotion of a “russky mir”, or Russian world. Moscow and Belgrade claim the right and duty to “protect” ethnic Russians and Serbs who live outside the mother country.

In Ukraine, this serves as Putin’s excuse for the annexation of lands he deems part of the “Russian world”. For Serbia, it implies that not only Kosovo but Montenegro and Republika Srpska, the Serb-inhabited part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ought to be part of a Greater Serbian political sphere.

Such goals are utterly incompatible with EU membership, but the problem does not stop there. Vučić this month dissolved parliament and called snap elections for December with the aim of prolonging his party’s rule. The vote is certain to be no fairer than the April 2022 elections which independent monitors said favoured the incumbents.

Brussels deserves credit for pushing ahead with EU enlargement plans. But in Serbia the process is at a standstill and losing credibility — casting doubt on whether these plans will solve the problem of democratic backsliding and regional instability in the Balkans.

tony.barber@ft.com

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