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The importance of public opinion in the European integration process – is asking questions enough?

Intro

Among its numerous communication and outreach activities, Serbian European Integration Office (hereinafter: SEIO) has been conducting periodical public polls on the European integration process and accompanying reforms under the name of “European Orientation of the Serbian citizen” for the last 12 years.

The last public opinion survey[1] took place at the end of June 2014 and it was carried out according to the Euro barometer standards, involving 1,015 participants, citizens of Serbia, aged 18 and older.

The main observation of this survey was that support for EU membership has declined by 5% compared to December 2013 although, according to SEIO, this was ascribed to regular oscillations, depending on current circumstances and events in the international arena. The final result was that 46% of participants have backed the Serbian membership to the EU, compared to an earlier 51% in December 2013.

These surveys have very good coverage in the media, they generated reactions by relevant politicians but also from the non-governmental organizations and citizens. The positive or negative results from the survey are typically used in different campaigns and as an argument that Serbia is/is not making progress in its EU integration process. However, these numbers, although perceived as strong tools in advocating the EU integration process, do have an inherent weakness, as they serve as a kind of alibi for politicians but also NGO’s and the so-called international community, which is that they sometimes create a false sense of progress or stagnation in the EU integration process without really tackling the real problem at hand – lack of proper information of the citizens regarding the EU integration process.

  1. The relevance of public opinion surveys and their results

Let’s be straight on one point – surveys on public opinion on relevant issues are always useful as a measure of the public’s views regarding a particular topic or series of topics. Although they do not have to explain why participants believe what they do, the results of these surveys can sometimes significantly affect public opinion. The question is then, whether they measure public opinion or whether in fact they are creating one. In case of the very hectic Serbian EU integration process, the answer would be – probably both.

However, the main issue with asking average citizens whether they support a country’s integration in the EU is whether they know what the process of EU integration means and what has to be done in order to achieve progress.  The so-called oscillations in the results of surveys in different years went from the highest support to EU integration in November 2009, when 73% of citizens supported EU accession, to lowest in December 2012 – only 41%. In the meantime, the process of EU integration and conditions for its successful implementation has not changed much. This trend actually shows that citizens are often giving their opinion not based on any knowledge of the process of EU integration and its costs/benefits, but rather on daily politics and other, to this issue, irrelevant influences.

Bearing in mind the political situation in Serbia and the importance of public support to the EU integration process, we must be aware of the quality of the received information from the public in order to be able to make the right choices when proceeding with our way on the EU path. So, the main question is what shall we do with those findings later?

Unfortunately, an analysis of the Serbian public opinion based on the above survey, shows that average Serbian citizens (participants of this survey) are not well informed about the process of EU integration and they are not following this process with any scrutiny.  This is true not only of the process of EU integration but also of Serbian internal politics, where many decisions are in one way or another in connection with the process of EU integration. Namely, regarding the question of what event was the most significant in the process of Serbia’s accession to the EU over 2014, almost half of the participants (48%) answered that they either do not know or do not have an answer, although Serbia made one of the most important steps in the EU integration process to this moment, by officially beginning negotiations for membership on 21 January 2014, just 6 months before this survey took place.

Also, the survey shows a lack of a clear idea of what the EU integration process is all about as expressed by participants of the survey, especially by stating policy of constant conditioning that the EU applies to Serbia as one the main reasons for slowing/hampering accession of Serbia to the EU (29% of the participants), while only one third of citizens consider that it would be good if Serbia was an EU member. All this information paints a picture of complete misperception of the EU integration process by the Serbian citizens, who have obviously not been approached in the right manner and explained the costs, benefits and requirements of the process of joining the EU.

That brings us to the conclusion- if we would ask  EU integration related questions to citizens who have some background knowledge of the EU integration process, we could expect some results that would indeed be a valuable guidance to policy makers and civil society and would be relevant for establishing the right perspective of the citizens in respect to the EU integration process. This survey gives us the starting point, something has to be changed – the state and the NGO sector have to do more.

  1. Well informed citizens – the only way to achieving a successful process of EU integration

Having in mind that average citizens are still not well and properly informed about the EU integration process, although Serbia has declared joining the EU as its strategic goal almost 14 years ago, the question remains whether there is something to be done to tackle this problem. In the  case that the previous question has an affirmative answer, the next question that follows is – what could state administration but also NGO’s, the academic and business community and individuals do to achieve a better level of understating of the EU integration process?

This is a rather important question for Serbia and other candidate countries in the Western Balkans, since most probably another decade will pass before Serbia  or any other candidate country joins the EU (at least not before the end of the mandate of the 2014-2019 European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker[2]). With that in mind, it will be really hard to sustain any support for the EU integration without campaigning and explaining to the broadest public all the steps along the way – communication to the citizens is a necessary ingredient to the process.

The significance of communication between the government and other participants in the process of EU integration (especially citizens) is also recognized by the European Commission in its communication “Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2013-2014”[3] which clearly states that “…Dialogue between decision makers and stakeholders needs to be further developed. An empowered civil society is a crucial component of any democratic system. It enhances political accountability and social cohesion, deepening understanding and inclusiveness of accession-related reforms …”

Apart from being the tool that will make understating the process of EU integration more inclusive and build genuine support, having politically educated and well informed citizens is also a cornerstone of a democratic process in one country. This is the only way by which the opinion on the EU integration process could generate the necessary enthusiasm and push forward the process of reforms and harmonization with the EU acquis communautaire.

Governments can naturally do a lot and must take a lead in this process, but a lot can also be done by NGO’s and private initiatives, universities, informal education, seminars, conferences, blogs, better coverage of the EU affiliated topics in the media etc. Having a more decentralised approach in spreading information on the EU enlargement process will reach more citizens, and will hopefully create a bigger impact in the community. This can also be achieved by a grassroots advocacy campaign and by dispelling any myths or prejudice about the EU. The State itself has to cooperate more with NGOs and create a better climate for understanding the process of EU integration.

Lastly, let us not forget the fact that it will be citizens who will cast the final vote on whether or not Serbia will join the EU. If they are well informed about all aspects of the EU integration process, it will be much easier to pursue the necessary reforms but also there would be no need to perform last minute campaigns and advocating what the process of EU integration is all about when it’s too late to make any changes.

Until then, both government and organization of civil society have to work hard on raising awareness about EU integration process of Serbia but informing citizens, to motivate public to learn more and to show to the public that the entire process of integration is important for the citizens. Many things were done with success, but this is not enough to endure the marathon of integration, the whole society has to do a lot more if we want to avoid some last minute surprises. Asking questions is a great step, but only the first one to take.

Author: Nenad B. Kovačević is a gradate lawyer with a bachelor degree from the University of Belgrade and a Master of European studies from the University of Bonn, Germany, where he studied as a scholar of Konrad Adenauer Foundation. He is also a founder of a blog that deals with the EU process of integration –Eurobloger.com. At the moment, he is an associate at an international corporate law firm in Belgrade, Serbia.

[1] http://www.seio.gov.rs/upload/documents/nacionalna_dokumenta/istrazivanja_javnog_mnjenja/opinion_poll_14.pdf, as of 22 September 2014

[2] http://www.euractiv.com/sections/enlargement/serbia-grudgingly-accepts-junckers-enlargement-pause-308481, as of 22 September 2014

[3] http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2013/package/strategy_paper_2013_en.pdf, as of 20 Septemeber 2014

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