This blog post explores Serbia’s potential role as a leader in the European Union’s expansion to the Western Balkans. The post explains that the Western Balkans are a natural expansion area for the EU, with Slovenia and Croatia already being members. We discuss the WB6, a group of countries in the region that have applied for membership at different stages. The EU will approach the region as a whole to prepare it for convergence with the eurozone.
Serbia is considered a key country in this process due to its size and population, and it is seen as having the best chance, along with Montenegro, of becoming a member in the medium term. However, several factors are hindering this expansion, including internal factors such as EU disillusionment with the Niza expansion (enlargement fatigue) and the rise of anti-European movements, and external factors such as competition from the United States, Russia, and China.
At the same time, Serbia’s pursuit of the rehabilitation of its international relations, which suffered during the regime of Slobodan Milošević, is intertwined with its potential EU membership. However, Serbia’s tacit support for Russia in its actions in Ukraine has strained its relations with the EU.
Lastly, it is worth highlighting a decisive feature of Serbia: its uniqueness as a crossroads, as a bridge between two Europes or two ways of conceiving it. Serbia’s Slavic identity is not new to the EU, as various Central European states have been part of it for a long time, as well as Slovenia and Croatia. However, Serbia differs significantly from the latter two: these two countries have a more Austro-Hungarian or Germanic tradition and mentality due to their secular connection to the Habsburgs, through Budapest, not to mention the Italian influence in the Middle Ages: Western and Catholic. Serbia, on the other hand, has a much longer history as an independent state, as well as a medieval ideal empire or state, Turkish domination that Slovenia and Croatia did not have, and Orthodox Christian faith, including the use of the Cyrillic alphabet. In addition to the mentioned differences, Serbia’s economic development is lower than that of the two former Yugoslav republics cited. For all of the above, the EU faces a significant challenge in integrating Serbia. According to what has been said, Slovenia and Croatia speak a language similar to that of EU negotiators: by culture, by history, as well as by their natural geographic proximity, they have always been part of Western Europe.
Serbia, on the other hand, is more oriented towards the east and is more genuinely and deeply Balkan, more inclined to collaborate with Russia, given that nationalism, more or less revisionist, is installed in power after the European interludes of Zoran Đinđić (June 2001-March 2003) or Boris Tadić (2004-2012) and everything seems to indicate that it will continue to be so in the coming years. Belgrade maintains an ambiguous relationship with the EU. On the one hand, Serbia’s primary foreign policy objective is EU accession, something that no Serbian leader doubts. EU diplomacy cannot overlook Belgrade’s idiosyncrasy and way of conceiving Europe: an idea that is also Europe and of which the EU must take note.
However, there will be points of understanding: unlike Bulgaria, a member state and Orthodox Slavic country, Belgrade did not belong to the Soviet sphere of influence, from which it always wanted to distance itself. In fact, Tito’s Yugoslavia maintained close relations with both the then CEE and the USA, despite being «ideological adversaries» in theory. This makes Serbia unique: its vocation to be different and independent, its unmistakable willingness to be both Western and Eastern.
This entry, updated, adapted, and expanded, is part of my article: «Serbia’s accession to the EU as a Spearhead of the Integration of the Western Balkans: current situation.», Revista de Estudios Europeos, 2019, no. 74, pp. 138-184.