Serbia and the EU: what happened?

While the European Union enjoys the so-called "enlargement fatigue", apparently there is an "accession fatigue" in Serbia as well. For the first time since the pro-European and democratic changes of 2000, the majority of Serbian citizens are declaring to be against joining the European Union. According to a recent Ipsos poll, 44 percent of Serbs are against European integration, 35 percent are in favor, and the remaining 21 percent do not know or do not want to comment on this central issue of our time and society – which is also particularly conspicuous. Have we been in Europe’s waiting room for too long, so we have become bored and grown tired of it?

During the protests against the criminal regime of Slobodan Milosevic in 1996 and 1997, the citizens of Serbia symbolically, and with undisguised pride, carried the very flags of the European Union, the United States, Great Britain, France and Ferrari. The central banner of the protest, in our isolated country under international sanctions, was "Belgrade is [a part of] the World". Twenty years later, even at the protests against the authoritarian regime of Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, something like that became almost unthinkable. The iconography of various protests now prefers to include Russian flags instead of the EU, and those Orthodox icons instead of the iconic Ferrari. What happened?

According to some interpretations, it was either a commissioned or bogus research, conceived as a clumsy diplomatic argument in Serbia's negotiations with the EU. The (allegedly) declining support for Europe was supposed to warn or intimidate Brussels, and to enable – in the aggravated international circumstances of the war in Ukraine – Europe to treat Serbia with caution and somewhat softer. Indeed, this is a surprisingly large drop in support for European integration compared to all previous research, in a very short time, which points to a potential problem. It is not probable that such a large number of citizens suddenly turned against Serbia's membership in the EU overnight. Or is it?

Such research results did not come yesterday or by chance, but were lavishly nurtured, carefully cultivated, and generously promoted. These were executed by the official or state policy, the accompanying mass media, and due to the undisguised Russian influence, but also due to the cultural hegemony of nationalism for more than three decades. In that sense, the requirements set in the accession process by the European Union, or European conditionality policy, are often understood as gross pressure, blackmail or diktat in Serbia, and not as reforms that are primarily in the interest of this state and society. According to the opinion of most of our fellow citizens from the previous research of the Ministry of European Integration (2018), Serbia's entry into the EU is slowed down by the "policy of blackmail and conditioning", but also by the alleged "Serbian mentality".

In this regard, Europe itself is considered by the media as being too modern, overly liberal or an excessively progressive community for an otherwise conservative Serbian society. And a society that in this way, unfortunately, accepts a kind of (auto) Orientalism, or the European perception of Imagining the Balkans (Todorova,1997) as an irreparably traditional community. And then, according to a survey by the Center for International and Security Affairs (2021), more than two-thirds of Serbian citizens believe that Western countries "under the veil of civil liberties" actually promote a "morally corrupt and decadent lifestyle." And who would then want their state and society to belong to such a morally impure community?

The consequences of such a narrative are that only 18 percent of the population of our Republic looks at the European Union, and as much as 60 percent at Russia and 59 percent at China, as the most important strategic partner of Serbia, according to a 2021 survey. Even though this simply does not correspond to the facts demonstrating that the EU is undoubtedly a key strategic partner of Serbia. But hey, "if facts contradict our opinions - so much worse for the facts"? And the facts are as follows.

In 2021, Serbia's largest trading partner was the EU, with as much as 30.28 billion euros in trade. Far behind are the neighbours or members of CEFTA (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Moldova, Northern Macedonia) with 4.67 billion euros. And even further are China (4.47 billion) and Russia (only 2.37 billion). Also, EU investments accounted for 68% or more than two thirds of foreign direct investments in Serbia, only last year. Therefore, the trade between Serbia and the EU is thirteen times higher than the trade between Serbia, and for example Russia. Still, the majority of Serbian citizens consider Russia to be their most important strategic partner!

And it is similar with donations. In the 2000-2016 period, the European Union and its member states donated as much as 4.31 billion euros to our candidate country. And these donations dramatically contribute to the development of Serbia, ie. the development of democracy, rule of law, economy, fight against corruption etc., and the reconstruction of roads, bridges, schools, kindergartens and hospitals. Even our non-human endangered species, including the Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca) from Serbian national symbols, are being conserved with the EU funds (that is, with the money of European taxpayers).

However, thanks to the regime politicians and pro-regime media, which provide free advertising to Russia and China, there is a widespread belief in public opinion that Russia and/or China are the biggest donors or benefactors of Serbia. And which again does not correspond to the facts. In reality, China is only in the 9th place, behind the EU, the United States, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, Norway and Japan. And Russia is not even in the donor statistics, since its financial "help" is not donations, but expensive loans.

So, who are the true friends of Serbia? Or do we not choose our friends rationally, but rely on (invented) traditions and emotions? Maybe this is how it should be in everyday life, but is it also necessary in international relations? While, paradoxically, there is a flash of rationality and personal interests in that geopolitics. Most of the citizens of Serbia, socialized in Yugoslavia by Western culture and consumer society - with their iPhones in the back pockets of Western jeans - at the same time want them or their children to live and work in European Union or Western countries.

In other words, it is also a matter of popular perception. Many citizens of Serbia live in the mistaken belief that Russia is both the most important investor and the most important donor to the Republic of Serbia. And according to Thomas's theorem: "If humans define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" (1928). And, the consequences are such that the EU loses on its attractiveness and overall sex-appeal in our society. The internal problems of the EU certainly contribute to that, but also the proclaimed (military) neutrality of Serbia, which nostalgically alludes to the Yugoslav policy of non-alignment. However, in this time and age, military neutrality is only a cheap euphemism for encouraging anti-Western and pro-Russian attitudes, and which is in the direct interest of the Kremlin, and not Belgrade. After all, is it possible to be politically and morally neutral in the face of Russia's ongoing aggression against Ukraine?

Additionally, in the nationalist matrix, memories of NATO's bombing of Serbia (1999), Kosovo's independence (2008), as well as collective feelings of hostility, jealousy, victimhood, resentment, and overall ressentiment towards the (mythological) West, have been fuelled for decades. Without any questioning or reflection on our government's past, and answering the question of why this bombing or independence occurred at all. Instead, Europe and the West are too often presented as the scapegoat, or the usual suspect, for all our troubles. That is, as the bogeyman in the local version of ethnonationalist populism.

Finally, what if the Serbian fatigue concerning the EU accession is, in fact, only – the fatigue from reforms? Are we merely being tired of modernization, and of the painstaking change of the system of clientelism, cronyism, rampant corruption and the party state? Tired of transforming one’s everyday life towards greater tolerance, diversity, equality, and respect for human and minority rights? Therefore, the decline in support for Serbia's accession to the European Union is only a natural consequence of a media and culturally hegemonic narrative of ethnonationalism and parochialism, as well as an expression of sharp social inequalities and a growing gap between rich and poor.

Due to the very logic of joining the EU as fulfilling a series of rational-bureaucratic requirements, many segments of Serbian society prefer to accept a kind of victim mentality, the sense of weakness, or inferiority complex. And thus, preferring traditional and parochial modes of behaviour, which rely on personal and kinship ties, rather than the impartial rule of law and democratic values. This worldview is then alchemically transformed into the role of a proud, noble and pretentious Gallic village from the comics about Asterix, surrounded on all sides by the hated Roman or Brussels Empire. Although we do not have a magic potion that would give us the strength to truly resist the permanent magnetism of Europe. So, we remain an isolated island in discrepancy with the world, but also with ourselves.

Dr. Aleksej Kišjuhas

Associate Professor

Department of Sociology

Faculty of Philosophy in Novi Sad

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