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Mixed messages from Belgrade: Is the EU narrative shifting?

Photo: Facebook / Aleksandar Vučić

“Serbia is on the EU-accession path, we will tread stronger on that path and we will fight so that Serbia becomes a part of the EU family”, said President Aleksandar Vučić in his opening remarks during an address to the nation on 6 May.

Vučić also emphasized that Serbia shall pursue EU membership regardless of the latest poll showing that a majority of citizens are against Serbia joining the EU because “it is our job to do what is in the best interest of Serbia”

“Our trade exchange with EU makes 62,5% of our foreign trade balance, that’s 30+ billion euros, 300,000 people are directly or indirectly employed in companies from the EU, biggest investments come from the EU, 1,9 billion euros last year”, said Vučić

Official data support the President’s message. In the last 16 years, Serbia also received over 3.6 billion euros in grants from the EU. Moreover, the country receives 200 million euros annually from IPA funds, and this financial support is used for, among other, infrastructural projects, hospitals and schools.

Only rarely has Vučić spoken this positively about the EU in recent years. In fact, media analyses suggest that, during the pandemic, the EU was very often the target of critics from the pro-government media and the highest echelons of power, including the President.

While a certain shift in public communication has been noticeable since the start of the war in Ukraine, the overall messaging remains a mixed bag, with both the emphasis on the necessity to remain on the EU path and strong criticism of “the West” and its pressures on Serbia to align its foreign policy with the Union.

The shifts in the rhetoric that took place did not only concern the EU, but also Russia, which was, for years, receiving only praise and positive coverage from the officials and mainstream media.

During his speech on 6 May, Vučić added that Serbia now found itself in a much worse position after statements made by President Vladimir Putin on Kosovo. Vučić asserted that “there is no love” in international relations, and “justice is even more scarce”. He also added that Serbia should take care of its own interest and look after the future of its children.

A statement made by the Russian President Putin a week prior to Vučić’s address, in which he used the example of Kosovo to justify his support of the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk, sparked outrage amongst pro-government tabloids and with headlines like “Putin stabbed a knife into Serbia’s back” (Srpski telegraf) and “We pay the price for the global conflict: Putin plays the Kosovo card” (Informer).

This has come as a major shift given the fact that these tabloids have been strongly pro-Russian throughout their existence. They didn’t hesitate to put titles like “Thank you, brother Putin, well-done President”, “Russians won’t leave Serbs hanging”, “Ukraine attacked Russia” or “Putin checkmated Ukraine” on their front pages when Serbia was negotiating the gas price or when the war in Ukraine has started.

Journalists Safeta Biševac and Mihailo Jovićević, speaking for N1 television, saw this change in the narrative as a prelude to a Serbian foreign policy shift. Jovićević said that “it is quite certain that Serbia will impose sanctions on Russia, and that the only problem is how President Aleksandar Vučić will announce it in the media”.

“It seemed to me that he was preparing the public of Serbia, that Serbia would still opt for the European Union in this historical dilemma. As soon as he spoke about the investments of the European Union in Serbia, the donations”, Biševac said.

If the government is trying to re-shape the public opinion, it certainly faces a challenge, given the high levels of Euroscepticism in Serbia. Many would say that this situation is a partial result of the communication of the authorities in the past several years.

The latest opinion poll on EU integration conducted by Ipsos in April has shown that only 35% are for the EU accession and 44% are against it, while 21% didn’t know or didn’t want to disclose their opinion. This has come as a significant drop since all other polls in recent years showed that about 50% of citizens support EU integration of Serbia.

The timing of the release of this poll in a pro-government Blic was questioned by the commentators, given that it had provided Vučić with an argument that any form of pressure on Serbia to implement sanctions would only further undermine the support for the EU integration among citizens.

Regarding the growing Euroscepticism in Serbia, Zoran Gavrilović, Executive Director of the Bureau for Social Research, says for our portal that measurement of public opinion towards the EU in Serbia can be conducted in several ways. Measuring behavior towards the EU in a referendum style like Ipsos is one of them.

Other ways of measuring the attitudes towards the EU include posing the questions “If you and your significant other could choose where you could live” or “Where would you send your child for work and education” Gavrilović he added.

He thinks that sociodemographics play a significant role and thus it would be extremely shallow and in terms of methodology, inadequate to measure opinion about European Union with only one question which simulates a referendum.

“It is widely known that older and more conservative citizens are against EU integration and they also make up the majority of people in Serbia, but on the contrary, they are the ones who send their children in the EU for work or education”, Gavrilović said.

A part of the Eurosceptic sentiment, he adds, resides in the anti-democratic and authoritarian political culture. He also added that in every country Euroscepticism has risen as the integration went further.

“To sum up, we have no public opinion about the EU. The responsibility for that lies with the media, which do not have analytical and research reporting on the EU, especially at the level of chapter. Citizens face the mere transmission of information in the presence of positive and negative information that is of a principled nature”, concluded Gavrilović

Despite the recent changes in communication, it is not all that clear whether the government is about to change its course completely in order to persuade the public that the EU is, after all, the right way to go.

Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Brnabić certainly spoke in that tone on the occasion of the Day of Europe ceremony in Novi Sad “Europe is our past, our present, and our future”.

“We belong to the same family, we share the same values ​​and we have a common future ahead of us. I congratulate all our citizens and all the citizens of the European Union on Europe Day”, Brnabić added.

On the other hand, in his most recent interview for TV Prva on 15 May, President Vučić was again more critical of the West. He described the recent proposal of the German Bundestag which proposes a cut from the EU funds of the states that reject to align with the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy as “politics without principles and brutal pressures”.

He also pointed out that Serbia faces constant and heavy pressure because of its position not to implement sanctions against Russia. Vučić added that “foreign ambassadors cannot and will not spearhead Serbian policy”, adding that “everything I told you they say, they say it three times worse behind close doors”.

Minister of Interior Aleksandar Vulin has remained consistent in his rhetoric critical of the EU, emphasizing on 14 May that the “EU can’t sit on two chairs and to demand that Serbia comply with its policies, while at the same time supporting Pristina to be a member of the Council of Europe”.

Even though a change in the narrative that favors the EU can be seen the communication still remains mixed. Many messages critical of the EU can still be spotted.

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