Just 40% of Serbians believe the country will benefit from EU accession, a new poll from Gallup shows. The figure is similarly low in Montenegro – 49% – although as many as 84% of Kosovans and 80% of Albanians want to join the union.
Broadly speaking, the poll reveals that the richer countries in the region, and those that are most advanced on the accession path, have seen a sharp decline in enthusiasm for entry to the EU. Conversely, in those with the lowest GDP per capita, for whom accession is a distant prospect, citizens were most eager to join.
In Albania and Kosovo, “as two of the poorest areas in the region with high unemployment rates, residents may associate membership with a means to improve their living standards and stimulate job growth”, Gallup analysts wrote.
Albania and Kosovo have the lowest GDP per capita in the region, at just $4,543 and $3,796 respectively in 2015. Serbia ($5,235) and Montenegro ($5,826) are at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Another factor is likely to be the two countries’ relative isolation in a mainly ethnic Slavic region, leading them to look to the wider international community for support. In Kosovo, for example, Prime Minister Isa Mustafa recently expressed strong reservations about a mooted regional common market, saying that Kosovo didn’t “want past experiences in new packaging”.
All governments from the region are aiming for EU accession, but their progress varies widely from Montenegro, which already has numerous negotiation chapters open, to Kosovo, which has not yet been able to apply. The lengthy path towards accession has left some in the region questioning whether they will ever be able to join, as EU priorities have shifted away from enlargement. At a summit in Trieste on July 12, EU leaders sought to reassure regional politicians that accession is still in their future, though without making any new statements about timing.
Within the Western Balkans, those who thought EU accession would benefit their country were still in the majority across the board; even in Serbia there was a narrow edge above those who thought accession would harm the country, 34%, while a further 17% were undecided.
An earlier poll carried out in 2016 by the Belgrade-based Institute for European Affairs found that 52% of Serbian citizens believed Serbia should continue its EU integration even after the UK's departure from the union.
The mixed picture in Serbia is most likely related to historical grievances, specifically those related to Kosovo’s independence, which is recognised by all but five EU member states.
“Part of this scepticism appears to be driven by historical grievances associated with the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians. The dominant expectation among EU countries that Serbia recognize Kosovo's independence before joining the bloc likely exacerbates this resentment,” according to the report.
Another factor was that Serbia — more than most Western Balkan countries — is split between those who want EU accession and those who look to Moscow. Gallup found that 54% of Serbs approved of Russia's leadership over the past two years (compared to just 28% who approved of the EU's leadership), the highest proportion across the region.
This is despite the strong commitment by Serbian politicians to EU accession, which Aleksandar Vucic has made his priority since becoming prime minister in 2014, even at the risk of jeopardising traditional ties to Russia. Vucic’s successor as prime minister, Ana Brnabic, has also indicated her primary goal is steering the country closer to the EU.
However, even at the top level of government there have some hints of frustration. After meeting Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on July 13, Vucic appealed at a press conference for the EU to set a timeframe for Serbia’s accession. With several negotiation chapters currently open, Belgrade is hoping for accession by 2020, though this may be overly optimistic.
Serbs in other Western Balkan countries also tended to be less confident in the benefits of EU membership than other ethnic groups. In Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro, both of which have substantial Serb minorities, 38% and 32% of Serbs respectively thought EU membership would benefit their country, compared to 59% and 49% of all citizens.