The end of the conflict in Yugoslavia and attempts to stabilize the region brought the perspective of European Union membership in all successor states. Process of European integration was endorsed as a process of ‘returning to Europe’ whilst the promotion of European values served to define a society we want to have. In Serbia, a country highly polarized over the question of EU membership, the Union never acquired only a status of an international organization whose membership we want to achieve. It was primarily perceived and promoted as a system of values. With recent history marked with nationalism and violence towards neighboring countries, the prevailing belief since 2003 and Thessaloniki summit was that by adopting values such as tolerance, democracy and respect of the individual and collective human rights – seen as inherently European – both Serbia and the surrounding countries will become a peaceful and prosperous area.
Despite the remaining skepticism, over the course of years the majority of population stayed loyal to the idea of EU membership supporting fulfillment of standards in order to transform society still afflicted with nationalism, intolerance and corruption. The underlying principle was that with still unaccountable political elite and weak institutions, the EU can be a partner and crucial external pressure in a state transformation. Unable to exercise effective control over the executive branch of power, the process of integration for many civil actors was seen as a tool which can help achieving desired standards in terms of transparency, human rights protection and the rule of law.
Similarly, the EU for years relied on its soft power of persuasion. The “European perspective” was used as a ‘carrot’ in order to influence politics and to help overcoming deep polarizations among and within the countries. The largest market in the world, a welfare system and a system of education, to mention only few, were utilized to project the idea of the EU as a flourishing and successful region. And the Western Balkan (or the Restern, how is popularly called after Croatia joined in 2013), the EU’s geographic inner courtyard, is supposedly next in the line to join. Yet, after twelve years of enlargement, the EU has changed, trust of citizens have faded away and only Balkans states have remained (almost) the same.
First, the EU is not perceived as a peaceful and thriving island anymore; thus, it is losing its attractiveness in the Western Balkans on a more symbolic level. Being in a permanent crisis for years, it seems that situation with refugees in particular unraveled the fragility of values promoted for years as intrinsically European. Mutual accusations and discriminatory attitudes towards migrants triggered clashes within the EU showing lack of mechanisms to handle the crisis and the absence of solidarity (already jeopardized after the situation with Greece in the first half of the year). Rhetoric used by Viktor Orban in neighboring Hungary and by many other European leaders, together with border fences that in few months have arisen all over the Europe, have exposed the weakness of European unity. And a shameful attempt to make distinctions between refugees on the basis of their religious affiliation has only reminded on the darkest period of European history.
On the other hand, equally affected by the crisis, Western Balkan countries unexpectedly reappeared as an example of much needed solidarity. The region known as a periphery of Europe and a place where the worst atrocities in Europe after the Second World War had taken place, was suddenly praised for its treatment of refugees. Even Serbia and Croatia – twenty years ago in war – have managed to reach a deal to speed up refugee flow across the border. Therefore, what many (rightly) ask today is – if EU membership means ‘returning to Europe’, to what kind of Europe are we returning to?
In the same time, Serbia, as well as other countries of the Western Balkans, still faces serious problems with democratic consolidation. At the beginning seen as a benchmark fulfillment exercise where the end-destination did not have an alternative, today integration has become uncertain and unpredictable. Instead of stable, functioning states and open, tolerant societies, the last twelve years of integration have brought rather “consolidation of unconsolidated democracies”. Protection of human rights is still inadequate; particularly the freedom of expression is seriously put at risk which was highlighted in the latest EU country report. Further, reforms in the public sector and judiciary are still on an unsatisfactory level in the entire region. Yet, the Union is more than ever willing to trade respect of the rule of law for regional stability. To mention only one example – despite many political setbacks, acknowledging Serbia’s efforts towards normalising relations with Kosovo, the European Council officially decided to start membership negotiations between Serbia and the EU. Thus, prioritizing conditions and rewarding a regime with clear domestic authoritarian tendencies has been perceived as a failure of the EU to deliver its promise given to citizens.
Consequently, across the region, reform fatigue and the sense that living conditions are not getting better have made people jaded about promises of a brighter European future. Still in the EU’s waiting room, the European future of the Balkans remains just that, a future, not the present. Yet, the refugee crisis has shown that the region is an enclave within the EU and problems in the region spill over into the EU very quickly. And although enlargement policy has steadily lost credibility and public support in the Balkans, the EU still can win the battle for hearts and minds of the people. But first, it needs to show readiness to live up to its own, self-proclaimed set of values based on universal human rights and to prevent current discriminatory conducts to seem normal. And secondly, inclusiveness and giving voice to citizens must become part of the reform strategy towards the region. Demonstrating its commitment to tackle areas crucial for ordinary citizens such as corruption and judiciary, and not allying with tarnished political elites, will enhance credibility of the EU and increase popular support vital for the process of integration.
Atuhor: Katarina Tadić, a recent graduate and human rights activist based in Belgrade. Find her on twitter @KatarinaTadic.