European Western Balkans

A year after suspending Fidesz, EPP still turning a blind eye to Serbian Progressive Party

Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia; Photo: Presidency of Serbia

On 20 March 2019, European People’s Party (EPP) made a decision to suspend the ruling party of Hungary, Fidesz, from its membership.

“As the party of Europe’s Founding Fathers and many European successes, EPP is and must remain a beacon of values. All our member parties must lead by example”, stated the President of the party at the time, Joseph Daul.

He added that the EPP “cannot compromise on democracy, rule of law, freedom of press, academic freedom or minorities rights”.

Even though these were not the immediate reasons for the suspension, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s record on the values of liberal democracy did not go completely unaddressed. EPP decided to set up an independent Evaluation Committee tasked not only with assessing whether the Government stopped with anti-EU campaign and resolved the status of the Central European University, but also thoroughly assessing the rule of law and the respect for EPP values.

There have since been no follow-ups to this decision; the Evaluation Committee has not delivered any public conclusions, and Fidesz remains under suspension.

However, in addition to the lack of progress in this case, European People’s Party has also failed to open the cases of some of its other members in the past year. And, as European Western Balkans wrote in 2019 at the time of Fidesz’s suspension, if the largest European party wants to deal with all those within its ranks that are compromising its values, it has more work to do.

Not slow to criticize non-EPP members

The problem is not that the European People’s Party is generally unwilling to stand for the rule of law and freedom of speech in Europe. Far from being reluctant to defend the EU values, EPP has been openly critical of several ruling parties across the continent in the past year. Nevertheless, it is hard to overlook the fact that none of them have been its own members.

In October 2019, just before the elections in Poland, President Joseph Daul was unambiguous about the EPP’s views of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), member of the European Conservatives and Reformists.

“It is disheartening to see that democratic standards Poland fought hard for are now being eroded by the current ruling party. The recent reforms will deprive the citizens of stability and opportunities in the long term. They only serve the interest of the ruling political elite to maintain power”, Daul stressed in his statement of support to EPP members PO and PSL.

The tone of the criticism did not change when it came to a member of one of the oldest party alliances in Europe, Party of European Socialists. In the wake of the alleged involvement of a Maltese government official in the murder investigation of a journalist, EPP did not sugarcoat its condemnation of then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, leader of the Labour Party.

“It is outrageous that we have a sitting Prime Minister in an EU member state refusing to immediately resign following the implication of his chief of staff with the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. A planned succession months after such revelations shows that the socialist Prime Minister and his government have no respect for the Maltese, the rule of law or any EU values that they signed up to when the country joined the EU”, the EPP statement from 4 December 2019 reads.

EU Member States have not been the only ones on EPP’s radar as of late. In November, it condemned the ruling party of Georgia (Party of European Socialists observer member) for failing to change the electoral system. Even more criticism was levied against the ruling Socialist Party of Albania, on which the European People’s Party adopted a resolution during its 2019 Congress in Zagreb.

The resolution, tabled by the EPP associate member Democratic Party of Albania, recognised that Albania is facing a deep political crisis. It urged for the implementation of the electoral reform in line with the OSCE/ODIHR recommendations and stressed that vote-buying actions and involvement of organised crime in elections is unacceptable.

The resolution also emphasised the need for stronger efforts in the fight against corruption and organised crime, in particular massive cultivation and trafficking of cannabis.

A month later, following the adoption of a highly controversial media law by the Parliament of Albania, high-ranking members of the European People’s Party (EPP) expressed concern over its impact.

“The adopted legislation threatens these freedoms that were acquired long ago by the Albanian people. Free media have been a consistent reporter of abuse of power and exposed many corruption scandals”, emphasised MEP David Lega.

Why are the same standards not applied to Serbia?

At the time of the adoption of the Resolution on Albania, Serbia, governed by the EPP associate member Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), has been going through the boycott of parliament by the strongest opposition parties and the announcements of boycott of the April 2020 elections (now postponed due to COVID-19 pandemic).

It is hard to see how this does not also qualify as a political crisis that would require a reaction of the EPP, especially since many of the features of violations of EU values present in Albania have also been identified in Serbia.

While the government has made some steps in order to address the electoral conditions, criticised by both the opposition and civil society organisations as not meeting the standards of democracy, they almost completely boil down to mere legal changes, without necessary political will for implementation in practice.

Even though the most pressing issue of the inter-party dialogue mediated by the European Parliament from October to December 2019 were the campaign events masked as regular activities of public officials, as of 3 March 2020, Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) has submitted nine charges to the Anti-Corruption Agency over alleged continuation of this practice. The organisation also compiled allegations of continued pressure on voters, especially in the public sector.

CRTA’s monitoring of media space from 14 October 2019 to 3 March 2020 also showed that the national media devote 74,8% of their political slots to the neutral or positive coverage of the ruling parties, while the boycotting opposition is present much more rarely and in negative light.

Another highly controversial move by the Serbian ruling party was to lower the electoral threshold from 5% to 3% at the beginning of 2020 in less than a month, and less than three months ahead of the original election date. The process not only violated the Venice Commission standards on not changing elements of electoral system less than a year before an election, but also did not include public consultations and there was no cross-party support for the change. Parallels were drawn to the way Fidesz changed the electoral system in Hungary in 2011, but even that was done three years before the next election.

Furthermore, at the time when EPP adopted a Resolution on Albania highlighting the need for the fight against corruption, several corruption affairs broke out in Serbia, including the one involving the father of the Minister of Interior who was accused of receiving privileged selling prices from the state-owned arms manufacturer Krušik. There was even a cannabis cultivation affair in Serbia, uncovered in November 2019, though not on the scale of Albania. Nobody resigned and the institutions were slow to react, except in the case of whistleblower uncovering the Krušik affair, who has promptly arrested and released only after three months of prison and house arrest.

A number of additional affairs in Serbia are still without an epilogue, including the case of unlawful demolition in the Belgrade neighbourhood of Savamala in 2016, the car accident in Doljevac in which one person lost her life and which involved a government vehicle, the cases of allegedly inflated prices of Belgrade’s New Year’s decoration and large sums of money of unknown origin spent by government members.

In the year after the suspension of Fidesz, European Commission has published its annual report on Serbia, which clearly highlights the deterioration of the parliamentary debate due to the practices of the ruling coalition, lack of progress in the area of freedom of expression and limited progress in the judicial independence and fight against corruption. In 2020, Freedom House, kept Serbia in the category of partially free countries for the second year in the row.

Who shares the same values as Serbian Progressive Party?

Despite all of the above-mentioned cases, European People’s Party is yet to show any sign of disapproval of the actions of one of its associate members. While visiting Belgrade in December 2019, EPP’s leader in the European Parliament Manfred Weber had nothing to say on the situation in Serbia, even though he had championed the EU values in the European Parliament election campaign.

Speaking of the process of European Integration of Serbia, Weber said that the modernisation of the country, fight against corruption, media freedom, rule of law and independence of the institutions are paramount.

“These are all basic ideas that we share. What draws us closer is not only the goal of you becoming a Member of the EU, but also to see the readiness to implement all of these steps, so that the citizens of Serbia could live in a modern society”, Weber said.

His comments prompted a harsh reaction from the opposition representatives, who expressed their disbelief over Weber’s statement that he shares the same values and ideas as President of Serbia and Serbian Progressive Party Aleksandar Vučić.

In the meantime, Serbian Progressive Party has not made any attempt to distance itself politically from Fidesz even after its suspension from European People’s Party. Most prominent example was the address Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó gave at the rally of the Serbian Progressive Party in April 2019, a month after the EPP decision.

Speaking of Serbia’s EU Integration at the time, Szijjártó expressed Hungary’s support.

“If it depended on us, Serbia would become a member of the EU as of tomorrow,” he said, adding that with that country’s accession the bloc would become even stronger.

The relationship between President Vučić and Prime Minister Orbán seems to be stronger than ever – they paid each other visits in a span of a week. Orbán was present in Belgrade on 15 March 2020, the day on which the state of emergency was declared in Serbia due to COVID-19, and Vučić visited Budapest on 22 March, the day before a bill aimed at extreme expansion of government’s powers during the state of emergency entered the parliamentary procedure.

The actions of the both EPP and SNS, therefore, leave the question of who shares which values and with whom open to interpretation.

Other parties might also put EPP to a test

Even though the ruling party in Serbia is the most prominent example of European People’s Party lack of reaction, it is definitively not the only observer/associate member from the Western Balkans that could cause troubles for a party alliance willing to maintain its values.

The Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Bosnia and Herzegovina’s largest political party, as well as EPP observing member, has recently been rocked by the leak of a recording of some of its officials discussing a corrupt deal, causing its deputy leader to resign.

“Unfortunately, this is just the latest in a series of similar situations, which include indications of corrupt practices in different political parties in BiH,” OSCE Mission to BiH stated.

Among other associate and observer members of EPP in the Western Balkans are the Democratic Party of Albania, VMRO-DPMNE in North Macedonia and Democratic League of Kosovo.

Somewhat fortunately for EPP, the assessment within the last year’s EWB article mostly stands – half of its members in the Balkans are now in opposition, therefore removing any possible pressure on it to react to the problematic ways in which party politics in all of these countries can function.

However, it if is truly concerned about not accepting new Poland or Hungary to the EU, and if it is determined to maintain the European People’s Party as the alliance gathered around certain values, there is no reason why the largest pan-European party would not sort out the problems within its own ranks before criticising members of other groups.

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