Serbia was formally granted EU candidate country status on 1 March 2012. The EU leaders’ decision is recognition of Serbia’s efforts in carrying out major economic, political and judicial reforms. Obtaining candidate status represents the most important step so far on the country’s path towards EU membership, the nation’s top strategic goal.
Despite the eurozone crisis causing increasing doubt about the viability of the EU project, recent polls in Serbia show that voters still predominantly support EU membership. Regardless of the fact that those in favour fell to an all-time low last year of 54 per cent, the figure is still 22 per centage points higher than the share of those who are against EU membership. Serbia’s electorate places great importance on the reforms that are part of the European agenda; 85 per cent are for them in any case, even if the EU would somehow halt Serbia’s progress towards the accession.
Although some of Serbia’s citizens feel frustrated by the conditions required with respect to relations with Kosovo, (some perceive these to be an attempt by some influential member states to squeeze additional concessions from Serbia under duress), the significant majority of Serbia’s voters recognise Europe’s ‘soft power’, which manages to keep the number of EU sceptics to a minimum. To speed up the process of reconciliation and political and economic reforms, the EU has played a crucial role in providing various incentives to the Western Balkan states (full membership being the most important one). Accordingly, we strongly believe that a European future should be available for the entire region. When one state is left out a vacuum is created. Sooner or later, the vacuum will be filled by another power, eventually resulting in confrontation with the EU path.
Our average Serbian voter is aware that over two thirds of the country’s trade is with the EU and that the bulk of the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) comes from the EU. In an environment of prolonged global recession, economists have noted that Serbia’s economy has performed slightly better than some of its neighbours. But these assessments leave no room for complacency. After high annual growth rates of 5.7 per cent between 2001-08, Serbia’s GDP fell by 3 per cent in 2009, but has since demonstrated some growth in 2010 and 2011 with rates of just 1.8 and 1.5 per cent, respectively. The incurred budget deficit – that, fortunately, has never exceeded 4.8 per cent of the GDP – resulting from the fall in economic activities and tax revenues, had to be dealt with by borrowing and by a reduction of public expenditures. Therefore, the sovereign debt rose in the last three years to 45 per cent of GDP. Furthermore, rates of unemployment reached 24 per cent.
But one of Serbia’s key social, political and economic challenges is to stimulate robust growth based on attracting new FDIs. However, it’s worth mentioning that in 2011, Serbia attracted over US$2 billion worth of FDI and the Italian car giant, FIAT, is starting automobile production of a new car plant in the city of Kragujevac in 2012. The liquidity of the Serbian banking system has also been maintained during the crisis; Serbian banks are well capitalised and, by and large, are profitable. Foreign exchange reserves remained continuously stable.
When assessing the EU’s decision to grant Serbia candidate status, we should highlight Serbia’s commitment to parliamentary democracy, with a comprehensive constitutional, legislative and institutional framework which corresponds to European and international standards. My deep personal conviction is that Serbia’s heritage, culture, beliefs and history strongly bind the country to a group of nations that established the EU based on a common set of deeply held and widely shared values.
I write this on the eve of Serbia’s presidential and parliamentary elections, (scheduled for 6 May 2012) and there is a strong feeling among voters that cutting ties with the EU would not only expose the country to serious economic problems but also endanger fragile regional political stability. The reciprocal reasoning by the member states is to be expected: the collective pursuit of EU membership by Croatia (which will become a member state in 2013), Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania (albeit being independent of each other) has brought stability to the region through enhanced cooperation and common goals. This is an extraordinary achievement given that 13 years ago the region was immersed in serious conflict.
As realists, we should not forget President Sarkozy’s words: ‘eventually, we will obviously need to open to the Balkans. Then we will be 32, 33, or 34. Nobody believes that federalism, full integration, is feasible at 33, 34, or 35 countries. There will clearly be two European speeds: one speed towards greater integration in the eurozone and a more confederal speed in the EU.’ Future EU configuration is a topic for another article but, regardless of the contours which will eventually be established, both the present government and the leading opposition party believe that Serbia’s place is among the member states. Serbia has a long journey ahead, including establishing a date to commence the accession negotiations. Finally, I must quote the American writer, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin: ‘the journey is as valuable as the goal.’