Serbia’s accession risks bringing a second Orban into the EU

Serbia’s accession risks bringing a second Orban into the EU
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left) with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has clashed repeatedly with fellow EU members over the bloc's values. / Serbian presidency
By bne IntelliNews January 30, 2024

Serbia's path to European Union accession looks increasingly uncertain as concerns grow over the country's democratic institutions and its alignment with EU foreign policy. 

A comment by Angelica Vascotto, pan-European fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), warns that Serbia’s accession could leave the bloc with a second illiberal leader akin to Hungary's Viktor Orban, potentially undermining EU objectives and weakening its influence in the region.

The comment published by the ECFR on January 29 highlights Serbia's departure from the democratic norms required for EU accession. It argues that Serbia has become “the most controversial candidate on the waiting list” for accession. 

“[C]ontinuing with Serbia’s accession despite its trajectory could have high political costs. For the EU, it risks importing another Orban – an illiberal figure who may veto European objectives, such as funding for Ukraine or the accession of other Balkan countries – and could further undermine Europe’s hand when it comes to enforcing strong rule of law, media freedom and democratic standards,” says the comment. 

It was published amid a standoff between Hungary and fellow EU members over a €50bn aid package for Ukraine. Pressure is currently growing on Hungary ahead of the European Council summit on February 1, which will vote on the package, after Orban blocked the package at the previous summit before Christmas.

Election sparks protests 

The results of the country's general election on December 17, the fourth in three years, have raised serious questions about the integrity of the democratic process. Widespread protests erupted in Belgrade, demanding the annulment of the election, citing reports of phantom voters, ballot-box stuffing and vote-buying.

"Serbia is rapidly veering off its course for accession. Last month’s potentially fraudulent general election and Belgrade’s increasing distance from EU foreign policy should worry those in Brussels," warns Vascotto, drawing attention to the systemic advantages enjoyed by Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

European leaders are now calling for an investigation into the election, as concerns rise about the erosion of democratic processes. A return to healthier democratic practices seems difficult if Vucic continues to avoid meaningful dialogue with the opposition, suppress media freedom and diminish political rights.

The European Parliament aims to reach a resolution on how to respond to the Serbian elections on February 8. 

Foreign policy concerns 

Vucic's divergence from EU foreign policy is causing apprehension in Brussels. Despite publicly expressing support for European values and enlargement, Serbia has not joined sanctions against Russia and has deepened its economic ties with China. The EU's assessment of Belgrade's foreign policy alignment, initially at 51%, is likely to have dipped below 50%, raising doubts about Serbia's commitment to European values.

“Vucic’s reluctance to align with the EU on the world stage or in its democratic processes, risks not only Europe’s enlargement project but could weaken its ability to strengthen security in its eastern neighbourhood,” says the comment. 

"In particular, failure to mediate and incentivise democratic recovery could create greater room for political manoeuvres by third countries, pulling Serbia further away from its western neighbours.” 

Vucic's reluctance to align with the EU not only jeopardises the enlargement project but also weakens the EU's ability to promote security in its eastern neighbourhood. Failure to mediate and incentivise democratic recovery could allow other countries, including Russia, China and the Gulf states, to exert influence in Serbia, potentially diverting the country away from its Western neighbours.

“If Serbia continues to drift towards such actors, the EU could lose Serbia’s economy to foreign markets. This could also be damaging for Serbia: while EU grants and financial support might seem too policy-constrained, foreign funds do not seem less connected to obligations or dependence," the report adds. 

Policy recommendations

In a set of policy recommendations, Vascotto says the EU must find effective ways to communicate with liberal Serbian political actors and present itself as a democratic and foreign policy reference, providing support in the face of illiberal tendencies. 

The EU should also address Serbia's refusal to recognise Kosovo and support efforts to reach a bilateral resolution, a longstanding dispute delaying the accession process, it adds. European policymakers need to closely monitor the democratic situation in Serbia and be prepared to take decisive actions in case of further instability.