European Parliament session; Photo: European Union

The day after the Serbian elections on 21 June, members of the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament issued a statement saying the new parliament was a “mockery of democracy” and called on EU member states not to open new negotiating chapters with Serbia until the situation improves. In the past year, EP has mediated the dialogue between the government and the opposition, MEPs have sent letters to Enlargement Commissioner Várhelyi, with the assessments becoming increasingly harsh.

There are 146 MEPs belonging to Socialists and Democrats, a group bringing together center-left parties across the continent, out of a total of 705, making it the second largest. However, these MEPs were not the only ones to raise their voices about Serbia in recent months – a letter to Commissioner Várhelyi, expressing deep concern over the state of democracy in Serbia, was sent at the end of May by the liberal group Renew Europe, which has 98 members. Immediately after the elections in Serbia, a statement on the insufficient level of democracy for joining the EU was issued by the member of the group of Greens-European Free Alliance in charge of Serbia, Viola von Cramon-Taubadel – this group has 67 MEPs.

Of course, not all members of these groups in the European Parliament have taken a position on the situation in Serbia individually. The fact is, however, that this has been done by the MEPs who are the so-called Shadow Rapporteurs for Serbia – Von Cramon for the Greens and MEP Klemen Grošelj for Renew Europe, and that so far no differing messages have been heard from their ranks.

This means that, of the groups in the European Parliament that have come out with a clear stance on Serbia in recent months, three are critical of the situation in the country – Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals, with their total of 311 MEPs – while only one, the European People’s Party, with its 187 MEPs, remains sympathetic to the ruling party.

After the elections, the formation of a new Stabilisation and Association Committee between the European Parliament and the National Assembly of Serbia is on the agenda, and in the second half of the year there will be attempts to renew mediation, announced by MEPs Tanja Fajon and Vladimir Bilčik. European Parliament Resolution on Serbia can also be expected in the fall, following the European Commission’s Report.

From occasional comments to alarm bells

In formal terms, all decisions on EU enlargement policy are made by the Member States, while the negotiations are led by the European Commission. The European Parliament has no legaly binding authority when it comes to the situation in Serbia, but, as in other areas, it has developed mechanisms through which the views of MEPs can be expressed and influence the public and other EU institutions. As the reactions of both the media and the authorities in Serbia have shown in recent years, these attitudes have a certain political weight.

Unlike the European Commission, which does not give political assessments in its reports on Serbia and does not refer to individual cases, the European Parliament has the freedom to do so. Even in the years when the situation in Serbia was not as controversial as it is today, the resolutions of the European Parliament drafted by the Rapporteur for Serbia at the time, David McAllister, included, through the amendments, the issues such as the unlawful demolition in Belgrade neighbourhood Savamala, as well as the media freedom issues.

The new five-year term of the European Parliament began in June 2019, and, within a year, its activity related to Serbia surpassed the entire previous Parliament. All bodies had not even been constituted, and already the mediating role of MEPs in the dialogue between the Serbian government and (part of) the opposition was agreed, in September last year. As our portal wrote shortly before the elections, the agreed measures ultimately did not lead to significant improvements, but the inclusion of this institution in mediation itself meant that the situation with electoral conditions in Serbia has been recognised as problematic.

Another move of the European Parliament in support of this conclusion was the plan to send an observation mission to the elections, which in the end did not happen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the editor-in-chief of the European Western Balkans portal, Nemanja Todorović Štiplija, these missions have so far not been sent to candidate countries, but to those at a lower level of integration, such as Moldova, Ukraine or Kosovo.

“There were no such missions to a candidate country before – although it was not sent in the end, the very announcement that it would be was a sign that something was wrong”, Štiplija emphasizes.

After the announcement of the state of emergency in Serbia due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in March, and the subsequent rescheduling of the elections for June 21, three letters were sent to the address of Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi. One was signed by eleven MEPs from Renew Europe group, another by ten S&D MEPs, while the third, written by MP Attila Ara-Kovács, was signed by twenty of his colleagues from as many as five different groups, including the Greens and the Left, as well as a member of the European People’s Party from Finland.

All three letters openly pointed out the worrying situation, first on the occasion of the introduction of a state of emergency without the approval of the parliament, and then the scheduling of elections without consultations with all political actors. MEPs expressed doubts that the June 21 elections would be fair and democratic due to factors such as government control over the media. Such a clear positioning towards the situation in Serbia was previously lacking.

Finally, on the eve of the elections, MEPs held meetings with the government, the opposition and civil society, with the message that contacts and talks will continue after them.

How did it come about that the European Parliament took such a serious part in the developments in Serbia? According to MEP Klemen Grošelj, the Shadow Rapporteur of the group Renew Europe for Serbia, two reasons are crucial – the elections and Kosovo.

MEP Klemen Grošelj; Photo: European Union

“When it comes to the elections, there are obvious differences between different political groups in the EP. As for our group, Renew Europe, we stand for free and fair elections as the basis of modern democratic societies. My current impression is that Serbia does not meet these criteria”, Grošelj told our portal ahead of the elections on 21 June.

Another reason for the growing interest in Serbia, this MEP notes, is the future of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, since the prevailing expectation is that the new government in Serbia, as well as in Kosovo, will resolve the open issue of Kosovo’s status after the elections.

“This expectation is closely connected with the attitude of certain political groups in the EP towards the Serbian authorities. Of course, it also means that if those expectations are not met, the attitude could change. Therefore, that will also be an important factor, at least for a part of the EP, in the future relationship with Serbia and the Serbian authorities”, Grošelj noted.

As Nemanja Todorović Štiplija reminds, in the coming months formal instruments of the European Parliament will once again be activated, including a Resolution written on the basis of the European Commission’s Report, as well as, presumably, a new meeting of the Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee.

“The European Parliament forms its political position in the resolution, so the one that refers to Serbia is extremely important,” he notes.

This will be the first resolution to be drafted by the new Rapporteur for Serbia, Vladimir Bilčik, who, like his predecessor McAllister, comes from the ranks of the European People’s Party. Although the resolutions have so far been much more balanced documents than one might expect, last week’s messages confirming that the Serbian Progressive Party still has the support of the European People’s Party (EPP), of which it is an associate member, are still fresh in memory.

Donald Tusk versus Tanja Fajon, or a bit more comlicated

A tweet in which the president of the EPP, Donald Tusk, wished good luck to the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, before the parliamentary elections on Sunday, was met with harsh reactions on this social network, as did his congratulations on the victory in the partially boycotted elections.

On the other hand, the statement of the S&D group on Monday was characterized by President Vučić as an individual criticism of Tanja Fajon, although her statement was only a part of the reaction in which her colleagues Kati Piri and Tonino Picula also expressed the views of S&D. The announcement was published on the official website of this parliamentary group.

If previous months have shown that the Serbian Progressive Party has the support of Christian Democrats in the European Parliament, while the Social Democrats, Liberals and Greens are increasingly critical of the situation in Serbia, this covers almost 500 out of 705 Members of the European Parliament. The remaining three parliamentary groups did not specifically address the situation in the country, but their previous views are already known.

Donald Tusk and Aleksandar Vučić

It cannot be said that the group United European Left – Nordic Green Left, which consists of the Greek Syriza, the German Die Linke and other parties, is supportive of the authorities in Serbia, and this was confirmed for our portal from this group, which has 39 MEPs. As we were told, the group is very critical of the situation regarding the state of democratic standards and freedoms, primarily regarding the freedom of the media, and generally democratic trends in the country.

On the other side are the European Conservatives and Reformists, a group of 62 MEPs, in which the ruling Polish party Law and Justice has the decisive role. This party itself is accused of violating European values, primarily the rule of law, and the support it gave to enlargement to the Western Balkans shows that it is difficult to expect MEPs from this group to join the criticism of the authorities in Serbia.

Finally, when it comes to the enlargement issues, the group of right-wing populist parties – Identity and Democracy – has mostly stood in opposition to the admission of Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Albania in recent years. The diversity of the 76-member group, from parties more skeptical of enlargement, such as the French National Rally and the Alternative for Germany, and those more friendly to Serbia, such as the Freedom Party of Austria, has so far prevented the group’s clear position on the situation in the country.

The European Parliament is still less polarized than national legislatures, and its ruling coalition currently consists of the three largest groups – the EPP, the Socialists and Democrats and Renew Europe. In recent years, there have been no significant cases of contentious voting when enlargement topics were on the agenda. However, that scenario is not unheard of – in November last year, the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament did not immediately support the candidacy of Olivér Várhelyi for the Commissioner for Enlargement. Thirty deputies voted for, and 48 against, from the very groups that are currently critical of the authorities in Serbia. Only after he submitted answers to additional parliamentary questions, Várhelyi’s candidacy was confirmed.

If, therefore, at some point, there would be a close call on the documents concerning Serbia, could the government expect to have a majority in its favor? The current numerical situation and clear views expressed in recent months show that this would not be the case.

However, formal documents are only part of the European Parliament’s influence, especially if their content does not reach the majority of media in Serbia, which is currently the case. What can really make a significant difference is the continuation of mediation, but in a different format than was the case last year – there is now no pro-EU opposition in parliament following the election boycott. Several years ago, the EP managed to mediate an agreement in North Macedonia to resolve the political crisis, and the opposition in Serbia is expected to continue to insist on this form of solution. Whether it will happen will depend on the room for maneuver of the ruling parties.