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Serbia’s Prospects for EU Membership

Just a few months ago, Serbia was the centerpiece of the European Union (EU) policy. Its ascension to the EU looked promising. But the euro crisis in Greece shifted the EU’s policy priority. Now, the crisis has run so deep that the EU itself is under the threat of being disbanded. It is unlikely. And it would be only a matter of time before Serbia along with other Balkan countries return to the EU policy debate.

The timing, then, will be even more critical to evaluate Serbia’s ascension to the EU. The arguments for such an evaluation follow. On May 26, 2011 the Serbian authority arrested war criminal Ratko Mladic. His arrest was a critical factor for Serbia’s coveted EU membership. The arrest brought praises from the international community. But it is far cry from bringing a closure to the relatives of 8,000 men, women, children slaughtered in Srebrenica in 1994. Nor should it satisfy the outright preconditions of the EU membership.

The larger question for EU is this: can it really afford to bear the burden of another volatile EU member in addition to Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece?

Serbia’s foreign policy and its relationship with the EU, NATO, and U.S. are critical factors in determining its legitimacy of the EU membership. Serbia has made progress in these areas but the road blocks still remain. Furthermore, Serbia’s economic and political climate and security within its border remain vulnerable more than 10 years after the Balkan War.

Foreign Policy

Serbia has shown significant improvements in strengthening its foreign policy. For example, Serbia’s current administration has worked hard to improve relationship with Russia and China to bolster its diplomatic and economic conditions. The independence of Kosovo, however, remains a thorny issue for Serbia. In 2008, the United Nations (UN) sought advice from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) regarding the “legality of independence of Kosovo.” The ICJ’s response was that “Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not contravene international law.”

According to a report by Dick Marty of Switzerland, the linkage between Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and the alleged murder of the prisoners during the war between Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Serbia in 1990s further complicates the relationship between the two countries. The report further reveals that the organs from the murdered prisoners were extracted for sale in the black market.

Serbia’s foreign policy with Croatia and Bosnia remains contentious over the issue of genocide during the Balkan war. Croatia and Bosnia claim Serbia committed genocide during the war. Both countries filed cases against Serbia with the ICJ. Serbia also filed similar charges against Croatia in 2009. Despite the legal confrontations, in 2010 Serbia did acknowledge the massacre of Srebrenica perpetrated by the Serb forces.

European Union

From the EU’s perspective, Serbia is gaining economic, political, social momentum to join the EU club. In April 2008, the EU signed a trade agreement with Serbia called the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) to facilitate Serbia’s membership prospect. The purpose of this agreement is to provide Serbia a framework for “enhanced cooperation between EU and Serbia…in harmonizing local laws with EU standards, with the perspective of EU membership.”

But the agreement and the EU’s support alone do not present a rosy prospect for Serbia’s EU membership. The Netherlands did not ratify the agreement until 2010 because it did not meet the requirements for International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) for genocide during the Balkan war. Since the SAA agreement was made between EU and Serbia, the Serbian government had to cooperate with ICTY to meet its requirements for its conduct during the war. The handing over of indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic on July 21, 2008 and Ratko Mladic on May 26, 2011 indicates Serbia’s willingness to cooperate with the international community to join the EU.

Yet, the prospect of Serbia’s membership to the EU remains doubtful on various factors. One is the EU’s “enlargement fatigue.” To dispel the fatigue, the EU has introduced strict membership requirements. The other is the Kosovo issue. The Serbian government has insisted that it would decline to accept an EU membership if is contingent upon “recognizing Kosovo’s independence.” Moreover, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia, Romania, and Spain do not recognize Kosovo’s independence. These countries are Serbia’s allies and to complicate matters further, they fear that recognizing Kosovo’s independence “could set an unfortunate precedent.”

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Serbia must forge a positive relationship with NATO to ensure and build regional security. NATO has the capability to provide Serbia and other Western Balkan countries with resources to promote security in this region. In 2006, Serbia undertook NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program (PFP). The program is used to “encourage multilateral military cooperation, civilian control of defense advancements, and greater sharing of information on defense budgeting and planning.”

Serbia’s partnership with NATO, however, could be tricky. Despite joining the PFP program, Serbia may not want to become a member of NATO. Public sentiment in Serbia is high against a NATO membership because of “NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia.” NATO and Serbia are negotiating deals through several frameworks for Serbia to join NATO.

U.S. Policy

The U.S. has played a critical role in Serbia’s foreign policy since the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991. During the 1990’s, the U.S. pressured UN to impose economic sanctions against Milosevic’s government because of its active role in the Balkan war. But the U.S. has also pressured Milosevic to end the war in Bosnia. Serbia receives a substantial amount of aid from the U.S. For example, in 2009 it received nearly $50 million in aid; and in 2010 it received $51 million in aid. Other additional aids also poured in to revitalize and reform Serbia’s “political and economic reform.” This aid totaled approximately $10 million. For the 2012 fiscal year, the Obama administration requested nearly $40 million in aid to Congress.


Kosovo remains one of the key security concerns for Serbia. Although there is no threat from outside, unresolved issues with Kosovo could potentially trigger violence and unrest. There could even be threats from the various right-wing groups from both countries to retaliate against each other. These threats could destabilize not only Kosovo and Serbia but also the entire Western Balkan region. In order to contain any ethnic and political violence, Serbia must undertake security sector reform (SSR) to ensure long-term stability in the Western Balkan region.

The EU must also need to lend financing and infrastructure-building resources multilaterally to Serbia, Kosovo, and other Western Balkan countries to ensure stability and peace. Serbia seems to be a worthy candidate for EU membership. But in light of the current volatile economic and political conditions in Europe, the EU must examine its candidacy without hastily elevating Serbia to EU membership. To become an EU member, Serbia needs to ensure and restore a sustainable economic and political climate. A careful and objective long-term evaluation process should ensure Serbia’s berth to EU.