By Muzaffer Kutlay
Serbia has been granted EU candidacy status at the latest summit of EU leaders in Brussels (March 2, 2012). There is no doubt that the recent constructive foreign policy of Serbia has positively influenced the ultimate decision of the European leaders. Since the application for candidacy in 2009, Belgrade has carried out a series of reforms in line with the EU acquis, taken crucial steps in arresting war criminals and concluded an agreement regarding the representation of Kosovo at regional meetings. Following these positive developments, Serbia has achieved a key step in acquiring EU membership candidacy primarily by obtaining the support of Germany and other EU countries.
EU’s Western Balkans Policy
A relatively long time has passed since the end of tragic wars in the Balkans which began with the disintegration of Yugoslavia. During that process, the “Balkans problem” turned into a “Europe’s problem” day by day. Due to security concerns, the EU did not remain indifferent to regional problems in the 1990s. EU’s enlargement strategy of Eastern Europe and Balkans was a strong policy reaction to peacefully transform the unstable region at that time. Not surprisingly, as a part of this project, Serbia, which is one of the significant actors in Balkans for securing peace and stability, comes firstly to mind among other regional countries.
Due to its rapidly growing influence and normative power capability, the EU became a significant actor in the relatively stable and peaceful region throughout the 2000s. Following Hungary and Slovenia, in 2007 Romania and Bulgaria were incorporated into the Union. Meanwhile, the prospect for EU membership is granted to Western Balkan countries (European Union institutions and member states define the “Western Balkans” as Albania and the former Yugoslavia) in return for fulfilling certain criteria.
This region is remembered for its problems such as ethnic conflicts, disputed borders, refugees, illegal immigration and organized crimes. Due to its geographical closeness it also poses a serious security threats to the Union. As a matter of fact, the EU’s policy toward the region consists of an “inclusive transformation” strategy. On the other side of the coin, EU membership means economic welfare, institutionalization of democracy and improvement in basic rights and freedoms for regional countries.
Handwringing EU Journey of Serbia
Just as other regional countries, EU membership has become one of the most important foreign policy goals of Serbia. In 2003 at the Thessaloniki Summit, it was declared that Serbia (with Montenegro and other regional countries) is a potential candidate for membership. At the meeting conducted a day after the summit, European leaders explicitly conveyed a message to regional leaders by stating that “the future of the Balkans is within the European Union” and “combating organized crime and corruption constitutes a major priority.” In addition, Serbia had to cooperate in prosecuting Bosnian war criminals before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
On October 2005, negotiations on the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) were initiated by the decision of the Council. However, on May 2006, the European Union suspended SAA talks with Serbia due to its failure to fulfill its commitment to fully cooperate with the ICTY. About a year later, Serbia reiterated its commitment to fully cooperate with the ICTY, and in June 2007 it was decided that negotiations with Serbia would be reopened. A year later, Radovan Karadziç, one of the top fugitives on the ICTY’s most wanted list, was arrested. Following this, Belgrade officially applied for EU membership on December 2009. In 2011, Mladić was subsequently arrested on May 26. The ICTY indicted 161 people and Goran Hadžić became the last indicted fugitive to be arrested on July 20. In line with these developments, the positive decision was taken by the Commission on October 2011 regarding Serbia’s membership application.
Obtaining candidate status became a challenging process for Serbia in terms of implementing reforms, combating organized crimes and corruption, creating good neighborhood relations, strengthening regional cooperation and lastly fully cooperating with the ICTY in order to arrest war criminals. Those conditions caused considerable anxiety towards Serbian politicians, particularly for President Boris Tadiç.
On the other side, the international community also appreciated the transformation of Serbia. News titled “Serbia Has Removed Obstacles on Its Path to EU Membership” and “EU Gives Green Light for Serbia’s Candidacy” became frequent. However, Germany in particular and other EU countries’ envoys indicated further obstacles like Kosovo issue. So, in December at the EU leaders’ summit, settling of this issue was considered a pre-condition for Serbia’s EU accession. In December summit, the European leaders decline to grant a candidacy status to Serbia was a clear disappointment for Serbian political elite. Nonetheless they have lobbied hard to obtain the status they demanded.
Three months have passed since the last summit of EU leaders. In the meantime, Serbia has increased the number of meetings with both EU leaders and Kosovo. These initiatives bear fruit and Serbia has been granted EU candidate status on March 2. However, there is still a long and challenging process ahead of Serbia such as harmonization with the EU acquis, creating good neighborhood relations, securing political balance and economic restructuring. Thus, a challenging new period in which an endeavor more arduous than obtaining candidate status is necessary has begun for the EU’s new candidate Serbia.
USAK Center for EU Studies