Two weeks after the publishing of the European Commission’s (EC) 2022 Communication on EU Enlargement Policy and the set of Country Reports for candidate and potential candidate countries, the President of the EC Ms. Ursula Von der Leyen visited the Western Balkans. On 28 October she visited Serbia.
Context is what defines the importance of this visit which was realized against the backdrop of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The moment of the visit was ripe. War in Ukraine is influencing the lives of citizens of the region in the same unprecedented manner as it does EU citizens. Being outside the EU and more exposed, citizens of the Western Balkans are concerned about being less protected from potential energy shortages, inflation, and the economic and social consequences of this war. The same goes for Serbia.
Thus, a visit of the President of the EC was an important display of European solidarity in time of need. She started by announcing 165 mil EUR in budgetary support to mitigate the consequences of energy crises on the most vulnerable as well as small and medium sized businesses. She visited the construction of a gas interconnector between Serbia and Bulgaria that will enable Serbia to diversify its gas supply and escape from dependence on gas from Russia.
Ms. Von der Leyen announced an additional 500 mil EUR as a support to the Western Balkans to enhance energy connectivity in the region. During her public appearance her messages were aiming to create the sense of Serbia’s belonging to the EU (“EU is not complete without Serbia”, message that was repeated throughout the region during her visit). And that was good and very much needed.
But Serbia is not an ordinary candidate country. It is a country where lines of division of powers have been blurred in the past 10 years leading to a decline of democracy and respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights. It represents the personification of the State Capture phenomena in which the ruling political party controls crucial resources, institutions and processes. Serbia did not comply with the invitation to join the set of restrictive measures against Russia, although it did vote against Russia at the General Assembly of the UN and other international organizations. Serbia is the pivotal country of the region, capable of spilling over both positive and negative effects of its current political orientation/paradigm.
Thus its reluctance to engage more concretely in EU accession-required reforms and to join the EU foreign policy measures against Russia breeds unease and uncertainty both in the region, as well as in the EU.
Living in an environment marked by conflicting narratives, disinformation and fake news, the importance of clear communication and straight forward messaging is becoming of utmost importance. Unfortunately, some of Von der Leyen’s public messages during her visit to Serbia were ill-prepared.
On her Twitter account she mentioned that “Serbia is well advanced on its EU path” while according to her own 2022 Country Report, Serbia is "moderately prepared" on its EU path, a mark that has not changed since 2016! The need to communicate responsibly is especially important in a country where 99% of media is under political control and will easily abuse this level of factually unbased enthusiasm.
She continued by sending the message "Progress must continue" stopping short from clearly defining what the Serbian leadership needs to do to achieve more progress. Mind you, it’s important for the public to be properly and honestly informed in a society where the media is captured by political interests. Ms. Von der Leyen missed the opportunity to send a clear message and support the citizens of Serbia by informing and empowering them to know exactly what is required on Serbia’s EU path. She continued stating "Aligning in defence of common principles and values."
Again, a missed opportunity to drop cryptic language when addressing the Serbian public. “Respect democracy and the rule of law, protect freedom of expression and media, introduce sanctions on Russia, peacefully resolve issues with Kosovo”, is not difficult to communicate. These are very well known and clear conditions, set in the EU’s Negotiation Framework and haven’t changed since the start of the EU accession negotiations.
Therefore, missing an opportunity to say it clearly is an opportunity missed. Von der Leyen concluded her Tweet saying, "Working together for security and prosperity." And that was a good message. Her visit must be appreciated for showing compassion and solidarity with the citizens of Serbia and bringing valuable EU grants to mitigate the consequences of pandemic and war in Ukraine. But what’s missing is a clear message to the Serbian public that in return, the Serbian leadership will be held accountable for full respect of universal democratic principles.
To conclude - I fully understand diplomatic language and courtesy that is a part of high-level visits, and I am well aware that some important messages on sanctions against Russia, normalization with Pristina and rule of law must have been exchanged behind closed doors. However, in a captured state with almost all the media scene being controlled by individuals or companies who are close to the Serbian leadership and ruling party, it is of utmost importance to speak clearly in public about evident democratic deficiencies.
Let me be very clear, the Serbian leadership doesn’t need any help in communicating its policies. Rather, it needs to be held accountable for its lack of EU accession-focused messages to the public, and for spreading nationalistic rhetoric and its appraisal of the EU’s systemic competitors, Russia and China. Messages like those from the above-mentioned Tweet are distorting reality and discouraging those who still believe there's no alternative to Serbia's EU accession. They will also make the work of civil society activists and journalists, those credible and critical voices who are monitoring Serbia’s EU accession process, more difficult.
Going back to the start of this blog and the importance of context – this geopolitical moment cannot be neglected, obviously, but we need to be cautious. When catering to the EU’s geopolitical interests, it must not be at the expense of the values the EU was founded upon. We cannot build a common future by throwing democracy under the bus! As Ms. Von der Leyen mentioned in her 2022 State of the Union address - “Because the path towards strong democracies and the path towards our Union are one and the same”.