Europeanization at a Crossroads: Accession and Informality in Serbia
Alexander Mesarovich, PhD Candidate in Politics at the University of Edinburgh
While 2020 marks a dramatic year globally in Serbia it will be, in addition to the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the year that protesters stormed the Parliament (Narodna Skupština) in protest against what was widely perceived as a rigged and one-sided election. How has Serbia, one of the accession front-runners in the Western Balkan region, returned to the politics of the street? Not since the overthrow of the Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević in 2000 have protesters entered the parliament building in anger.
How has it come to this? Since 2006, since the end of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, Serbia has been on a pro-European Union (EU) path with significant steps made towards joining the EU. Within this context, however, less visible processes have been building in the background which finally erupted following the elections of the 21st of June. What do these events reveal about the interaction of the formal processes involved in EU accession and the informal political structures in Serbia?
EU accession is a uniquely transformative process requiring the adoption of norms and practices which may be alien to the political and bureaucratic culture of the candidate state (Bideleux 1999, Ágh 1994). As such, it is a process not of calculated trade-offs or attempted deal making but one of societal and structural learning whereby actors of all political stripes and positions adjust their functioning to be in line with the criteria for EU membership (Radaelli 2002). While Serbia has, officially, met the Copenhagen Criteria and begun the accession process the current situation suggests that democracy in Serbia was not as consolidated as previously assumed.
This is marked by the re-emergence, or perhaps continued dominance of, an informal style of politics which has enabled the dominance of the ruling party and the degradation of democratic institutions. Within the parliament the dominance of the ruling party has allowed them to override the normal rules and procedures which act to check the government’s power. Coalition partners have been co-opted and clientelist parties have been brought within the ever expanding tent of government power. There has been a marked increase in the use of emergency procedures to pass legislation, thereby preventing debate or scrutiny and severely restricting the ability of the legislature to function as an institution. These emergency procedures also deny opposition members time to speak on nationally televised debates as the government fills time with their own amendments to their own bills which are then voted down leaving no time for discussion.
Outside the Skupština the informal connections of the ruling party and party elites has impacted the ability of other parties to function. Media controlled by allies of the ruling party, which includes most television channels and newspapers in the country, is critical, to put it mildly, of the actions of opposition parties, if it covers them at all. Press freedom has declined dramatically in recent years as media concentration has increased. This is coupled with rampant vote buying at the municipal and local level (Bliznakovski, Gjuzelov, and Popovikj 2017). In the face of this, and the assault of a politician by criminals in 2018, the opposition exited parliament and began marching in protest to a rising climate of violence, corruption, and control. These marches, which took place weekly from the 30 November 2018 to 16 March 2020 involved a wide spectrum of political candidates and individuals, all marching in opposition to the practices of the ruling party.
This rupture, with informal groups in control of the levers of power and non-government actors excluded from political life, has interrupted the learning process which takes place as part of the accession process. Instead of adopting the norms, ways, and practices at the heart of the accession process the Serbian political scene has fragmented with politics returning to the street and both sides claiming foul play. Despite a formal commitment to EU membership and democracy the existence of informal political networks and clans which pervade the political parties has prevented the creation of alternative centres of power or the emergence of norm entrepreneurs which would drive the learning process (Dunlop and Radaelli 2018).
In response to these events, the decision of European People’s Party (EPP) President Donald Tusk to congratulate Aleksandar Vučić, the head of the SNS and President of Serbia, on his performance as leader in the run-up to the election has only confirmed the power of these informal systems of control and the impotence of the EU in the face of changing them. While this is not necessarily unexpected, as the EPP has previously run into trouble for continuing to foster links with Hungary’s ruling FIDESZ party, it was still condemned by opposition politicians for helping to provide shelter and legitimacy to anti-democratic practices on the part of the regime.
What now for Serbia, for accession, and the EU? While these events do not, necessarily, predicate an end to the accession process they do paint the structure of the accession process in a mixed light. The EU’s rule of law first approach to the accession of the Western Balkans has been vindicated in that, by attempting to place the creation of an impartial judicial service at the heart of the accession process, the EU has managed to prevent a country with such a culture of criminality from joining. As such, the “fundamentals first” accession strategy appears to be working in the sense that if Serbia cannot meet the fundamental criteria it should not then become a member of the EU.
However, this presents a fundamental question about what is to be done regarding Serbia and accession. As Serbia is at the nexus of several strategic issues (Kosovo, relations with China, Russia, and migration to name a few) there is a strong impetus to keep Serbia in the EU’s orbit and in the accession process. The EPP was quick to congratulate the SNS, an EPP member, on its electoral victory. For the moment, the EU seems to have chosen stability in the region rather than attempting to foster the necessary Europeanization and learning required to bring Serbia into the EU as a full member state. Serbia is still, then, trapped in the no-mans-land of “stabilitocracy”, confined to the dustbin of progress to ensure a quiet Balkan border for the EU.
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