“Ministers, over lunch, will discuss the situation in the Western Balkans, notably in the run-up to the Serbian general elections on 11 May.” This is the seemingly unimportant announcement on the GAERC Council Agenda for the April 29th meeting in Luxembourg. But EU Foreign Ministers will have to decide on quite a difficult issue: Should the EU offer Serbia a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) before the Serbian elections? (which might even influence the election outcomes?)
The pessimistic perspective
The International Crisis Group thinks that the EU should not make a deal with Serbia before the upcoming elections. In a recently published research paper “Will the Real Serbia Please Stand Up?“, the think tank argues that the EU should not offer a SAA unless Serbia cooperates fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The EU should also “stop intervening directly in support of one or another political force” in Serbia because it would backfire at the ballot box :
“At best, the EU and U.S. will have limited influence for many months, until a new government is formed, which may not be until September or later. Meanwhile, the public anger over Western support for Kosovo’s independence is such that any attempt to pressure or even induce Belgrade into more cooperation risks strengthening the nationalist vote.”
The think tank sums it up with the statement “appeasement has already failed in the Balkans for over a decade and a half”. One should also not underestimate regional dynamics. In many Western Balkan countries, the EU is seen as having double standards and offering a deal to Serbia now would only support this kind of argumentation, especially because cooperation with the ICTY is a crucial point for the whole region. Ultimately, a SAA with a concession on ICTY cooperation would weaken the negotiation position of the EU in other SAA and accession negotiations in the region.
The optimistic perspective
As part of a “blog-round table” (more about that later!) I had the chance to talk to Milica Delevic, the Serbian Assistant Foreign Minister for European Integration. Obviously she would welcome an early offer from the EU and argues that “EU engagement is always better than isolation”. However, she also admitted that the Serbian government is a bit “schizophrenic” on the issue because the SAA is more and more linked to a recognition of Kosovo (Koštunica:”Signing SAA means signing away Kosovo“). But signing a SAA is not EU membership and it has nothing to do with Kosovo either, it would rather establish contractual relations as well as better trade relations with the EU, and it would give Serbia access to EU funding. (Delevic: “Russia has better contractual relations with the EU than Serbia!”).
The Serbian electorate is quite evenly split between “nationalists” and “moderates” which will make it probably difficult to form a new government after the elections. But a SAA could give the EU some leverage over the next government, be it moderate, nationalist or a coalition. At the same time, EU integration is supported by a comfortable 70% majority of the population, and a clear sign from the EU could motivate voters to vote for more moderate and pro-EU parties.
The EU is likely to find a compromise on the ICTY question (which is of particular interest of the Netherlands and Belgium) that would link parts of the implementation process of the SAA to the full ICTY cooperation and not the SAA offer. Deutsche Welle quotes Belgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Francois Delhaye on the position of Belgium and the Netherlands on the issue: “The two countries would agree to a proposed Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), but Serbia should not benefit from the advantages of this accord without full cooperation with the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).”
So what should the EU do? – Here are the official Kosmopolit recommendations:
It is necessary to overcome the pure political argumentation here and to highlight the important process of reforming the country. Symbols still prevail in the Balkans. It is time for focusing on economic and social issues in order to overcome the power of symbolism, which has been present in Balkan politics for too long. By offering a SAA now, the EU can show that it has not given up on Serbia, which can be perceived as quite a powerful statement in Belgrade! Signing the SAA can bring a different perspective and a new hope, especially for the young generation/voters. The agreement would at least restart the pro-European debate and possibly turn the attention away from Kosovo. Although the SAA offer might not directly influence the election outcome, it will certainly increase the pressure on politicians to get serious about reforming the country. The persistence and attraction of radical and nationalistic ideologies can be traced back to the lack of economic and social reforms that are long overdue. The proposed SAA would not directly introduce reforms, it may nevertheless open the door for the long awaited process.
Written by: Tanchi & Kosmo
Update 29/04/08: The EU decided to sign a SAA with Serbia. However, the implementation and the ratification of the agreement will depend on Serbia’s full cooperation with the ICTY:
- Financial Times: EU to sign deal on on ties with Serbia
- EUObserver: EU to sign pre-accession deal with Serbia
- International Herald Tribune: EU nations agree to sign pre-membership pact with Serbia, not implement it
- Official statement by Boris Tadić, President of Serbia