BALKAN BLOG: Brexit shows Serbia’s anti-EU rhetoric is a dangerous game

BALKAN BLOG: Brexit shows Serbia’s anti-EU rhetoric is a dangerous game
/ bne IntelliNews
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow May 16, 2023

One of the criticisms of the Serbian authorities in the report on the country adopted by the European Parliament on May 10 was the anti-EU rhetoric employed by the authorities, despite their commitment to joining the bloc. 

President Aleksandar Vucic and his officials have stated that joining the EU is Serbia’s foreign policy, yet it is common for anti-EU rhetoric to be employed by those close to power. The rationale is fairly obvious: Serbia is a divided country, with large swathes of the population still looking to Russia as a close ally and suspicious of the West and Western values. 

By allowing voices from within the establishment to express a range of different viewpoints, including explicitly pro-Russia ones, the government manages to balance its course towards EU membership and placate those parts of the population that do not agree with this direction. 

However, as British politicians found to their cost in 2016, once public anger is revved up against the EU as a convenient target, it isn’t easy to rein it back in. In the UK, decades of anti-EU rhetoric in the country laid the ground for the narrow majority secured by the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. 

This rhetoric wasn’t only employed by politicians who actually wanted to see the UK leave the bloc. In the decades of the UK’s EU membership, even many politicians who believed the UK should be part of the EU and that it was in the country’s best interests to be there frequently also used anti-EU rhetoric – whether to drum up support among voters by appearing to align with them on immigration, or to imply that their hands were tied by Brussels bureaucrats when it came to certain unpopular policies. 

But by the time the Brexit vote was called, those past comments had unleashed a runaway train of anti-EU sentiment in the UK, where many of the population held the EU responsible for immigration and any other ills faced by the country. Trying to employ logic and pragmatism in the face of emotions – many of them fuelled by the very people that in early 2016 were desperately trying to convince voters to back Remain – they completely failed to counter the tide of anti-EU sentiment they had unleashed. 

The grievances voiced by politicians and government-linked media in Serbia are different; rather than bendy bananas and migrants (who were accused of either stealing British jobs or lounging about on benefits), they accuse EU politicians of “blackmailing” Serbia to recognise Kosovo as independent or to renounce its traditional friendship with Russia. The imposition of Western values on Serbia is a familiar theme. 

But the effect is similar. The UK went from discussing euro adoption and ways to become one of the leaders of the EU in the late 1990s to crashing out of the block two decades later. Serbia was an enthusiastic reformer that looked likely to become one of the first countries from the Western Balkans to join the EU. Now, with support for accession the lowest in the region, politicians will struggle even more than before to make the difficult reforms needed to enter the bloc – the most painful, and most difficult to persuade the population to accept, of course being normalisation of relations with Kosovo. 

Appealing to the masses

Vucic’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has built its success – the party has been in power since 2012 and Vucic has been first prime minister and later president for nine years – on being a broad church. Not only does the populist party seek to appeal to a broad range of voters, it also has numerous smaller coalition partners, the biggest one being the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS) that cater to an even wider range of viewpoints. 

Encouraging the excesses of the pro-Russian right wing, meanwhile, enables government officials to portray themselves to Serbia’s Western partners as well-meaning reformers that are unfortunately hamstrung by a vocal nationalist minority. 

Similarly, foreign policy has been designed on the inclusive “four pillars” strategy of building good relations with Russia, China, the EU and the US. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine polarised the northern hemisphere, this approach occasionally caused Western diplomats to erupt with frustration, but it suited Serbia. Belgrade could pander to the right wing with talk of friendship from Russia and keep Moscow’s support on keeping Kosovo out of the UN, get China to fund expensive infrastructure projects and pursue EU membership all at the same time.

The apogee of this multi-vector policy came during the recent pandemic, when Serbia emerged as one of the first mass vaccinators, having secured COVID-19 vaccines from multiple sources. While other European nations were struggling to vaccinate their own populations, Serbia was handing out vaccines to its friends across the Western Balkans. 

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, of course, this policy suddenly became infinitely harder to maintain. Pressure has steadily mounted on Serbia to join the Western side and impose sanctions on Russia. The report adopted by the European Parliament criticised Serbia’s persistent refusal to align with EU foreign policy and introduce sanctions, and called for it to suffer the consequences by having its accession process stalled. There was also a recommendation to have EU funding linked to alignment with EU strategic goals and interests, and a call for the EU to “reconsider the extent of its financial assistance to Serbia if support for anti-democratic politics continues”.

Turning against the EU

Polls have repeatedly shown that the Serbian government policy towards Russia and sanctions is broadly in line with popular sentiment. Most Serbs consider Russia a friendly nation and don’t want sanctions, many see the war as the fault of Nato or more broadly the West, rather than Russia. 

Meanwhile, support for EU accession has faltered. This has been seen to some extent in other Western Balkan countries in recent years, as a consequence of the sluggish accession process. However, it has become particularly acute in Serbia, where the most cursory glance at the pro-government tabloids reveals an abundance of anti-EU rhetoric. 

MEPs “are concerned about the recent decrease in public support for EU membership in Serbia, which they consider is a result of long-standing anti-EU/pro-Russian political rhetoric spread via government-controlled media and government officials”, said a press release from the European Parliament issued after the debate on May 10. It also condemns “attacks by politicians and public officials against the EU and certain member states, especially France and Germany”. 

According to the report, public support for EU membership in Serbia has dropped to an all-time low, a trend accompanied by growing support for the Russian regime. Some polls now indicate that a majority in the country oppose EU accession. This, says the document, “is a result of a long-standing anti-EU/pro-Russian political rhetoric widely spread via government-controlled media as well as by government officials and of a gross failure from officials to face and come to terms with Serbia’s past”. Progress towards accession has already stalled. 

It links the decline in support for EU accession to “the increasing presence of other international actors”, and expresses "regrets that the EU’s calls for Serbia to respect commitments as a candidate country have been portrayed as blackmail by the highest Serbian officials”. Meanwhile, “publicly financed media outlets, often quoting office-holders, contribute to the dissemination of anti-EU rhetoric in Serbia”. 

Appealing for a change of tack in Serbia, the report, backed by an overwhelming majority of MEPs, urges officials “to actively communicate the benefits of EU membership as a matter of priority”. 

It’s notable that in the wake of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and the economic devastation and continued political ructions that followed, eurosceptic politicians across the EU have been a lot less vocal – presumably out of fear that the exits they have been hinting at should actually come to pass. But with a unique set of pressures weighing on the Serbian authorities, this warning example has failed to carry sufficient weight.