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Assessing Serbian enthusiasm for EU membership

In February 2018, the European Commission published its much-anticipated Enlargement Package, which detailed the progress of current accession negotiations and committed to begin talks with Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in the following year. While negotiations with Turkey continue to stall primarily over rule of law concerns, prospects were optimistic for Serbia, as well as Montenegro. Shortly after the publication of the package, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn announced 2025 as the target date for the accession of those countries into the EU. As the Commission prepares for the start of a new mandate following the European elections this May, we must ask: is there sufficient political appetite for EU membership within Serbia?

What do politicians think?

The Serbian government under the leadership of President Aleksandar Vučić and the conservative-populist Serbian Progressive Party (SNS-EPP) has opted for a decidedly pro-accession path since entering government in 2012. However, some cabinet members are less optimistic about membership and the progress of negotiations thus far.

During an event celebrating the completion of a new military helipad on Thursday, Serbian Defence Minister and leader of the left-wing nationalist Movement of Socialists (PS-*) Aleksandar Vulin voiced his disagreements with the President’s policy towards the EU to reporters. He argued that the EU is failing to prevent the realisation of a “Greater Albania” through its push for normalised Belgrade-Pristina diplomacy and called for a reassessment of the Serbia-EU relationship. Prime Minister Ana Brnabić echoed some of these concerns while acknowledging that EU officials have begun to take a harder line with the Kosovan government after their imposition of egregious import duties.

Opposition figures have echoed similar concerns. Vučić’s former Economy Minister, Saša Radulović (DJB-*), went as far as to suggest Serbia withdraw from EU negotiations, fearing what he calls the EU’s “colonial” tendencies. Others criticise Vučić’s apparent western orientation as a move away from the influence of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is seen as Serbia’s most trusted ally by 57% of Serbians according to December’s Faktor Plus poll.

These comments follow a highly-publicised interview with Vučić published in the day before, where he defended his policies. Vučić assumes a pragmatic position: acknowledging that Kosovo is neither completely Albanian nor completely Serbian and thus asserting that compromise must be reached between Belgrade and Pristina for the sake of future generations. “Those who do not understand that will lead Serbia into the greatest tragedy from which we will emerge defeated, more defeated than ever”, he told the interviewer. Vučić also tackled accusations that Moscow views his administration unfavourably and vice-versa, noting that he has met with Vladimir Putin more times than all previous presidents and prime ministers of Serbia combined. Vučić stated that he would not be pressured to turn his back on Russia by the EU, whose report states that Serbia must do more to align its foreign and security policy with the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy before accession.

What do voters think?

We now have an idea of the mixed feelings membership felt by Serbian political figures, but how supportive are Serbian voters of membership negotiations with the EU? Recent data shows that these opinions are also mixed.

The aforementioned poll from Faktor Plus, a preeminent pollster in Serbia, contains much more information for this kind of analysis. It particularly addresses the two main issues with EU negotiations raised by politicians: the status of Kosovo and the future of their relationship with Russia. In terms of Serbia’s foreign policy, 36% of the 1,250-voter sample believe Serbia should maintain good relations with both Europe and Russia when it benefits the country. Furthermore, 30% believe the country should orient itself toward the EU, whereas only 21% would like to see Serbia align itself closer to Russia. However, Vladimir Putin remains by far the most trusted and popular foreign leader among Serbians, earning a 57% favourability rating compared to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s third-place ranking of 30%. French President Emmanuel Macron, another of the EU’s most prominent figures, ranks at the bottom of the list with a 6% in light of recent protests against his government.

Regarding Kosovo, 56% of respondents actually prefer the status quo “frozen conflict” situation to annexing the northern area of Kosovo (23%) or recognising Kosovo’s independence (6%). To gauge the significance of the Kosovo issue to Serbians, Faktor Plus asked respondents if they were willing to suffer negative personal consequences to keep Kosovo under Serbian authority, to which 48% responded No and only 16% responded Yes.

When asked about the accession timeframe laid out by the European Commission, respondents were pessimistic. 66% believe Serbia will not join the EU until 2030, if at all. Only 1% of respondents believe Serbia can make the prospective 2025 accession date. Overall, nominal support for EU membership dropped 4 points in 2018 to 34%

Despite this degree of scepticism towards the EU and the accession process, it is unclear whether it will materialise in voting behaviour in a meaningful way. After all, the Kosovo issue ranks behind ‘living standards’ and ‘corruption’ among public priorities. Moreover, the public’s apparent euro-pessimism has yet to affect 2020 parliamentary voting intention to a notable degree. According to the Faktor poll, 53.8% of respondents intend to vote for Vučić’s pro-European SNS-EPP, with the big-tent (and mostly pro-European) opposition faction, Alliance for Serbia (SZS-*), at a distant second place with 14.4%. The Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS-*) and eurosceptic right-wing Serbian Radical Party (SRS-*) reach third and fourth place with 9.8% and 4.5%, respectively. In conjunction with previous Faktor Plus, NSPM and CeSid polls conducted over the past year, these results show SNS steadily rising in public opinion since January 2018.

Additionally, Vučić himself ranks quite highly as the most popular politician in Serbia (57%). His policy agenda gets high marks as well, scoring an average of 4.2 points out of 5.

Based on these results, it appears that Serbians are indeed generally tepid towards EU membership as it is being pursued by the Serbian government, largely due to its implications for the Kosovo issue and their relationship with allies in Russia. Even so, voters continue to support the parties and politicians who make EU accession and administrative reform a government priority.

José is a Data Analyst for Europe Elects