Today, slightly more than half of Serbia’s population is in favour of membership in the EU and the country enjoys broad support from member states and the European Commission – explains Tomasz Żornaczuk
On the eve of the parliamentary election in Serbia, to be held on March 16, the political parties are trying to attract the voters with promises of new jobs and bringing in foreign investments along with the prospect of rapid integration with the European Union. There was not much time for sophisticated electoral programmes, though, since the Serbian authorities’ decision to call an early parliamentary election was taken only a month and a half ago – right after the launch of accession talks with the EU on January 21. Even though the election was expected by many, the campaign was both quick and fragmented.
The initiator of the early election was the Serbian Progressive Party, the larger of the two ruling parties. The other being the Socialist Party of Serbia. The need to establish a government with a strong mandate able to carry out difficult reforms en route to EU membership, served as the main argument. In practice, however, it is about strengthening the position of the SNS in the future government and translating its 40 per cent public support levels into parliamentary seats. Its leader, Alexander Vučić, is expected to replace Ivica Dačić of the SPS in the prime minister’s office.
Although the SNS will most probably win the right to appoint a new government, it may run out of votes to rule alone. The socialists can get an estimated 10 per cent of the vote but Vučić may want to build a coalition with one of the smaller parties – to fill more ministries in the new cabinet. A U-turn in the form of the creation of a government based on the current opposition is unlikely since it is clearly divided. The Democratic Party – the main group in the 2008–2012 government – enjoys little more than a 12 per cent backing and its support could further decline in favour of the New Democratic Party of former President Boris Tadić – set up in January 2014. This new formation cannot be assured parliamentary seats and it shares this uncertainty with the Liberal Democratic Party, the United Regions of Serbia and the Eurosceptic Democratic Party of Serbia; all currently represented in parliament.
The SNS owes its increasing support – up from 24 per cent in the parliamentary election in May 2012 – to both the results in the fight against corruption and to progress towards EU integration, made possible by the agreement with Pristina last April. It assumed inclusion in the administrative system of municipalities inhabited by Serbs in the north of Kosovo. The development of relations with Pristina will be the key challenge on the road to the union and also for the future government in Belgrade. The inclusion of these relations in negotiation frameworks have made them an official part of Serbia’s integration process with the EU.
This opens the door for interpretations and could be used to continue imposing conditions on the government in Belgrade. During the accession talks, European pressure on Serbia to define the final shape of relations with Kosovo – in other words to recognise its independence – will in fact grow. This is because EU member states will want to make sure that on the one hand there is no ambiguity about the area covered by the accession negotiations with Belgrade and, on the other hand, that the door remains open for Kosovo to join the union after the accession of Serbia.
The new government will also have to cure Serbia’s economy and other diseases. As part of the alignment with the acquis, this country will have to ensure greater independence of the judiciary, shorten the proceedings and make them more transparent. Moreover, the EU will call for more efficient measures to fight organised crime, including drug-related offences and it has reservations about freedom of sexual expression. The corruption levels need to be reduced further and the administration must be thoroughly reformed. The ambitious plan of the current government is to complete the talks with the union by 2018 so that the accession will follow two years later.
Although Serbia is in a better starting position for the negotiations than Croatia was in 2005 – talks with the EU took almost six years and the preparation, and ratification, of the accession treaty another two – one can assume that one term of government in Belgrade will be too short for the completion of the accession negotiations. Even more so, since a weak economy will also have to be reformed. This will lead to unpopular decisions such as further privatisation and closure of unprofitable businesses. At the same time, the government will have to create favourable legal conditions for small and medium enterprises and foreign investment in order to reduce unemployment from 20 per cent.
Today, slightly more than half of Serbia’s population is in favour of membership in the EU and the country enjoys broad support from member states and the European Commission. Despite this fact, Serbia will make progress in integration only on the basis of reforms carefully supervised by the union. It will be, therefore, in the next prime minister’s interests to create a government quickly and to continue the alignment with the acquis accordingly.
Tomasz Żornaczuk is an analyst on the Western Balkans at the Polish Institute of International Affairs think-tank