Kosovo hampers Serbia’s progress towards the EU

Kosovo hampers Serbia’s progress towards the EU

After years in the political wilderness Serbia has started to make incremental progress towards becoming a full member of the EU. The events in Kosovo this month, sparking angry exchanges over the rights of the Serb minority in the north of the country, highlight the many obstacles in Serbia’s path to full EU integration.

During the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia, the international community, primarily consisting of the West, came to blame Serbia as the prime aggressor for many intra-ethnic atrocities. This narrative triggered NATO intervention during the conflict in Kosovo in 1999 and left Serbia as an international pariah. Nevertheless, in recent years it has started to move closer to the European Union.

It signed a ‘Stabilisation and Association Agreement’ with the EU in 2007, which came into force in 2013, in order to foster trade cooperation as well as visa-free travel for Serbia’s citizens. At the start of 2014 it began accession talks with the EU, having allowed for the extradition of some of the most notorious leaders of the 1990s’ war, including Ratko Mladić, to the International Criminal Tribunal.

The Kosovo issue

One of the most difficult and painful issues for Serbia to resolve before it can join the EU is over the status of Kosovo. EU leaders specifically linked Serbia’s accession talks with normalisation of its relationship with its former territory. Germany is playing an increasing role in the region and many Balkan leaders now look to Angela Merkel for headway on integration.

The German Chancellor visited the region in July before Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement on several contentious issues in August, including one over more autonomy for the Serb minority in northern Kosovo. In November, however, the accord was struck down by the Kosovo constitutional court after demonstrations by the ethnic-Albanian majority.

The situation between Serbia and Kosovo has deteriorated and is said to be currently ‘tense’. The stand-off over Kosovo, along with economic difficulties, illustrates how far Serbia must go before it will be accepted into the EU.

Russian friends

One reason the EU remains enthusiastic about accepting Serbia into the Eurozone is the chance to loosen the country’s traditionally strong ties with Russia. The EU’s eastern periphery is a key ideological battle ground being fought between two models of governance: liberal democracy tilted to the West and the Russian state-centric model of clientelism.

Serbia’s energy market is dominated by Russian energy firms and the government in Belgrade opposed sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

Real GDP Growth Western Balkans. Source: World Bank

Economic reform

Despite all this, Serbia has plenty to offer the EU. It has been steadily reforming its economy over the last few years, has been attracting foreign investment and has a well-educated population. The European Commission’s 2015 report on Serbia’s accession noted positive progress but also made a number of tough demands.

It identified the urgent need of reform in the public sector, fiscal consolidation, development of the private sector, and restructuring of state-owned enterprises, as well as criticising the still-widespread corruption in the country.

Kori Udovički, current Deputy Prime Minister in charge of public administration reform, is an economist with a PhD from Yale who seems to understand the workings of Brussels. Udovički, however, has identified the huge problems Serbia faces in reforming its institutions while at the same time having less money to spend. However, the government in Belgrade may be seeking a short-term windfall if rumours prove to be true that it is about to sell its stake in the state telecommunications company.

Serbia’s accession to the EU is in the interests of both the Western Balkan region and wider European community. Achieving this aim will require extensive economic and political reform. The dispute over Kosovo only makes this process more difficult.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Robert Ledger

Robert Ledger is an analyst on European affairs, with a particular focus on the Balkan and Caucasus regions. He has an MA in International Relations from Brunel University and a PhD in political science from Queen Mary University London.