Serbians are permitted to travel to the EU without a visa, and Serbia is a candidate to join the union. Nevertheless, it would appear that membership lies at the end of a long and winding path. As an EU official once explained in jest: Serbia will become an EU member during a Turkish presidency. A big roadblock is Kosovo which, despite declaring its independence in 2008, is still viewed by many Serbians as a part of their country.
The EU has made normalised relations with Pristina a mandatory condition of Serbia’s EU membership. That includes things like a common border patrol, resolving telecommunications and power supply issues and carrying out any agreements the two parties have agreed on. At some point, Serbia may also have to pledge not to veto a Kosovan bid for EU membership, should the sovereignty at some point in the future seek to apply.
Kosovo, though, is far from Serbia’s biggest hindrance to EU membership. The country’s economic problems are staggering, leaving many Serbians desperate. The figures tell a grim tale: 30 percent unemployment, 10 percent inflation and deep debt. Given the chance, many young people would flee the country for greener pastures.
Working in Serbia’s favour is the relatively high education level of its populace, and Danish pump maker Grundfos reports positive experiences with the employees it has hired in Serbia. The country has a well-functioning infrastructure and there is – depending on which city you are in – strong support for foreign investment. Seen as a whole, Serbia’s economy is far better off than other countries in the region, including EU members Bulgaria and Romania.
Slain PM Zoran Djindjic deserves much of the credit for the free and fair elections now held in Serbia. Freedom of speech is also widely respected. Minorities are by and large protected, be they Hungarians in the Vojvodina province, Romanians or Roma.
Unfortunately, these protections aren’t always extended to homosexuals, a trend we see elsewhere in eastern and central Europe. In 2010, anti-gay groups attacked the annual homosexual parade and a violent conflict between parade-goers and troublemakers erupted in central Belgrade.
The biggest question, though, is what policies Serbia’s newly elected president and its newly seated government, which includes representatives from the right-wing Serbian Progress Party, will follow. So far, the rhetoric has been forward-looking. The government’s primary goal is EU membership.
Progress, the Serbians understand, depends on whether or not the Serbian government can implement agreements with Kosovo and whether or not that relationship can develop. The nationalist government is by no means a group of soft-hearts, but as many Belgrade political commentators point out, hard-hearted politics may be what it takes to make the compromises EU membership requires, not least when it comes to Kosovo.
Regardless of how enormous Serbia’s problems are, the EU should set a date to begin negotiations with the country, and it should be a Danish priority to help this process along.
It’s worth pointing out that beginning negotiations is far from actual accession. Turkey, for example, has been negotiating since 2005 without any real prospect of ever becoming a member.
Still, a date could potentially help stabilise a corner of Europe where armed conflict still lurks in places like Kosovo and Macedonia. Setting a date to begin negotiations would also serve to bring Serbia out of its identity crisis.
Ever since the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic, many Serbians have dreamt of a closer relationship with the Europe they feel they are a part of. Setting a date to begin negotiations will be a show of support for those working towards reconciliation and collaboration with each other and with neighbouring countries.
The biggest benefit setting a negotiating date will have, however, will be to put pressure on Serbia to carry out crucial economic, political and social reforms. A Europeanised Serbia is in our interest – regardless of whether or not Serbia ever becomes a member of the EU.
The author is president of Europa Bevægelsen (the Danish European Movement)