Serbia’s accession talks – where’s the drama?


In recent years we got used to seeing Greek top officials as heralds of doom and gloom but today Greek foreign minister Elefterios Venizelos had a pretty good reason to look cheerful. Not least because, as the holder rotating president of the Council of the EU (no, the Lisbon Treaty did not quite abolish that presidency), Greece could oversee the launch of accession negotiations with Serbia. A fellow Balkan country most Greeks sympathise with - for the right or wrong reasons. Ivica Dačić, Serbia’s prime minister, and Aleksandar Vučić, his deputy who is seen as the real powerholder in Belgrade, were equally jubilant. The EU’s reputation may have been in decline since the euro crisis broke out, but the Western Balkans are clearly the exception. Since coming into office in July 2012, Serbia’s coalition government did invest effort and political capital to make it to this point.  Today’s kickoff of talks is largely a belated payoff for the breakthrough achieved in normalisation talks back in April 2013.  The political deal struck at the June Council was to wait till after German elections in September.  In December, Serbia got the green light.

If there’s a drama it’s in Belgrade - not in Brussels. Serbia is bracing itself for elections. Once accession talks kick in, Vučić, who is now the undisputed leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), has no incentive to keep the coalition as it is. On the contrary, he has every reason to expand his seats in Parliament at a time his popularity ratings are sky-high bolstered by a widely publicized anti-corruption campaign. Better capture the moment: popularity might wane as the government cuts aid to ailing enterprises and thousands lose their jobs. President Tomislav Nikolić, a rival of Vučić within SNS, regroups his loyalists to mount a challenge. Snap elections are very likely to take place in March, when Belgrade is due to vote in municipal polls. SNS will formally take a decision this Saturday. Dačić and his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) will surely lose out in the coming months. Not surprisingly, Dačić  has opposed plans for early elections.  He will have to make a painful choice between stepping down from the prime minister’s post or joining the opposition’s ranks. 

It is doubtful that the EU would be able to act as the arbiter in domestic struggles. The actual EU accession of Serbia is far off and negotiations might take another decade, so it is a safe bet that Brussels will be content if only the normalisation talks with Kosovo stay on track. For the time being, EU policymakers seem to trust Vučić’s willingness to continue delivering.  It is an assumption that will be tested fairly soon. The second priority is institutional change within Serbia. Similar to Montenegro which started membership talks in June 2012, the European Commission frontloaded the negotiation chapters on judicial reform and on justice and home affairs. But in all fairness, it will take a long time before Serbia changes in the earnest. The problems experienced with Croatia are indeed instructive. Most important of all, membership talks won’t soothe the economic pain Serbia is going through at the moment, nor will it guarantee long-term public support for the government, now or in the future. Vučić appears to know it all to well. Hopefully, EU officials have learned the score too.

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