European Western Balkans

Will Serbia’s position on Russia affect the relations between the ruling party and the EPP?

European People's Party logo; Photo: Flickr / EPP

In the past two weeks, several groups in the European Parliament have criticized Serbia for not joining the EU’s sanctions on Russia. European People’s Party (EPP) MEPs also stress the importance of foreign policy alignment between Serbia and the EU for our portal. However, it remains unclear how the current situation will affect EPP’s relations with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

European Western Balkans asked the EPP for comment on its future relations with its associate member, Serbian Progressive Party, in the light of the differing positions on sanctions on Russia. We have received a reply that there would be no comments on this issue “for now”.

SNS has been an associate member of the EPP since 2016. It is expected to remain the largest party in the parliament following the snap parliamentary election on 3 April, while the leader of the party Aleksandar Vučić is the favorite in the presidential election which will take place the same day.

In recent years, European People’s Party has maintained a constructive relationship with SNS, despite the warnings of some experts that this might contribute to a “stabilitocracy” in Serbia due to the downward trend in the country’s rankings on international indexes of democracy. The foreign policy, however, might prove to be a more serious challenge.

European People’s Party has condemned Russia’s “unjustified military attack on Ukraine” on the day the war started. Furthermore, the party adopted a Declaration during a Summit in Paris on 10 March, in which it emphasized the importance of sanctions on Russia.

“Our unity is unprecedented; we ask all our partners and friends to align with this effort and assist in the full implementation of sanctions”, the Declaration reads.

Two weeks earlier, Serbia took a different position on this issue. According to the Conclusions of the Serbian National Security Council, adopted on 25 February, “the Republic of Serbia believes that it is not in its vital political and economic interest to impose sanctions on any country”.

Several days later, on 1 March, European Parliament Rapporteur for Serbia Vladimír Bilčík (EPP) and Chair of the EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee Tanja Fajon (S&D) released a communique in which they expressed expectation of Serbia to align fully with the Common Foreign and Security Policy of European Union, including the sanctions adopted against the regime in Russia.

MEP Bilčík later welcomed Serbia’s vote in the UN General Assembly in favor of the resolution condemning Russia’s aggression.

Asked by our portal about the future relations between SNS and EPP, Bilčík answered that this is a question for the political leadership of the EPP party.

“As the EP’s standing Rapporteur for Serbia, I will continue to engage with all partners in Serbia across the political spectrum in the run-up to the super-election day on 3 April and will be ready to discuss the strategic direction of Serbia once a new political leadership in the country is elected. In the coming weeks and months Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is going to be the number one topic in European politics and as such it is going to have important consequences for the EU’s engagement in the Western Balkans”, Bilčík said.

We also asked MEP Željana Zovko (EPP), a member of the Working group for the Western Balkans in the European Parliament, about this issue.

Zovko reminds that the European Union has taken a clear stand, condemning the Russian invasion and showing solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and the Member States acted by swiftly adopting concrete sanctions.

“With this in mind, the EPP Group strongly promotes our common European values, principles, and policies, we support these unequivocal activities of the European Union, and we have invited the associated members to join this position. As a candidate, Serbia has expressed interest in joining the European Union, and that ambition includes the need for full alignment with the Union’s foreign and security policy. It is clear that the EU and Serbia must continue talks on enlargement reforms, which will lead Serbia to full European integration, including in foreign affairs”, Zovko concludes.

The governments of EU Member States have not called on Serbia to change this position for now, at least not publically. In the meantime, the voices from the EU began to surface, expressing dissatisfaction with Serbia’s decision.

On 12 March, nine MEPs from the liberal Renew Europe group published a letter sent to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and High Representative Josep Borrell asking for a temporary freeze on negotiations with Serbia and a halt to EU financial assistance until the country aligns with the EU’s position on Russia.

The MEPs stressed that Serbia has “every right to follow the model of Russian President Vladimir Putin if it wants to, but it must be clear in its intentions and stop pretending to have serious aspirations for EU membership”.

A week later, MEP for the Greens Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield wrote that the Serbian government had sent a dangerous message by not aligning with EU sanctions against Russia.

“Along with my Greens-EFA colleagues, we call for the Serbian authorities to make their position clear on Russia now”, Delbos-Corfield tweeted on 18 March.

There have been additional hints that the relationship between SNS and EPP might become awkward in the future.

On 10 March, EPP President Donald Tusk tweeted from his official account that “Putin has built a wide network of allies and useful idiots, in Europe and in America”.

“Whether consciously or not, selflessly or for money, they support his actions and ideas. Trump, le Pen, Orbán, Salvini, Schroeder… The West needs deputinization”, Tusk tweeted.

Two of the persons mentioned, Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have participated in the current election campaign of the Serbian Progressive Party. Orbán famously left the European People’s Party last year after it had become clear that he was on a track of expulsion.

In 2020, Donald Tusk wished Aleksandar Vučić good luck in the elections boycotted by the main opposition parties and congratulated him on his 60% victory afterward. An interesting thing to observe will be whether he will do so again this year.

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