Serbia and Europe: who’s ruling who?

Many are shocked that Serbia has been made president of the Council of Europe, yet they turn a blind eye to the EU’s blackmail of elected Serb politicians.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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There has been a lot of concern expressed over the past week about Serbia running the Council of Europe. However, not many commentators have raised concerns about European king-making in Belgrade. To read the press debate over Serbia assuming the presidency of the Council of Europe, you could be forgiven for assuming that European institutions have little influence over Serbian politics. In fact, the new Serbian government, formed on Sunday 12 May, owes much to the power that Europe wields over the country.

In a column in the Guardian last week George Monbiot went so far as to argue that if the Council of Europe did not take the moral high ground against Balkan human rights abuses, by refusing Serbia the right to its turn at the rotating presidency, it might as well be abolished (1). He argued that the decision to let the presidency pass to Serbia mocked the goals of the Council and demonstrated its weakness and inability to take hard decisions which might raise a broader debate about the importance of human rights and democracy in Europe.

Monbiot said the Council of Europe’s unwillingness to intervene in Serbian politics is close to being complicit in genocide: ‘The price of being left alone by other states is the tolerance of mass murder.’ Those who have voiced disagreements with this anti-Serbian line taken by Monbiot and others tend to reverse the logic. Terry Davis, secretary general of the Council of Europe, responded by arguing that Monbiot was siding with indicted war criminals like Vojislav Seselj, who also do not want Serbia to be a member of the Council (2).

Where the advocates of the Council of Europe agree with Monbiot is in their portrayal of European institutions as being too weak vis-à-vis the power of the Serbian state; they claim that the Council plays a largely symbolic role in upholding European values and norms against a Serbian government that apparently has limited experience of democracy and protecting human rights. Guardian commentator Conor Foley argues that the Council’s 2003 decision to admit Serbia ‘will help to strengthen the work of civil society activists and local human rights defenders’ (3). For Foley, membership of the Council ‘is a prerequisite for countries to be considered for accession to the European Union and it is recognised as a key institution for spreading this body’s “soft power”’ (4).

Terry Davis takes a similar approach. Seeing the Council as ‘disappointed and impatient’ with the lack of Serbia’s progress, he argues that Serbia’s accession to membership of the Council was ‘a sign of support for, and solidarity with, the Serbian people’, which will enable assistance programmes ‘to help modernise the judiciary and other state institutions’ and enable individuals to bring cases to the European Court of Human Rights (5).

For all the talk of the ‘soft power’ of the European Union and the Council of Europe, their ‘modernisation’ of Serbia’s state institutions has been one more akin to political blackmail than the empowerment of the Serbian people.

In the Serbian elections in January 2007, the Serbian people voted for the Serbian Radical Party as the largest party in parliament, making it a potential party of government. This result was not to the EU’s satisfaction. Olli Rehn, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, argued that allowing representatives of the Radical Party into power would send out a ‘worrying sign’ to the rest of the EU (7). Months of electoral wrangling followed the elections, as the EU and the Council of Europe intervened in Serbia to help shape a pro-EU coalition alliance.

Last week, in the run-up to the 12 May Serbian Parliament’s decision to form a new government without the Radical Party, the pressure was stepped up to ensure that a pro-EU coalition could be formed. Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, expressed his desire for Serbian President Tadic, from the Democratic Party, to take over control of the police and security service from prime minister Vojislav Kostunica – clearly expressing the EU’s concern that Kostunica was blocking a deal with the Democratic Party in his reluctance to share out power (6).

Rehn promised that if a reform- and Europe-oriented government was formed in Serbia, then ‘Serbia’s path to the EU will be revitalised immediately’; he offered to sign visa-facilitation and re-admission agreements, as well as resuming talks on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) as a first step towards Serbia becoming an EU membership candidate. Rehn said: ‘I trust that the leaders of Serbia’s democratic forces now realise their responsibility and choose a European future for Serbia, instead of letting the country fall back to its nationalist past.’ (8)

The installation of the EU in a political king-making role in Serbian politics is an inevitable result of the policy of blackmailing Serbian politicians to choose the right coalition partners and undertake the right policies. Despite the talk of EU ‘norms’, democracy and rights, the European institutions’ approach to Serbia has been more like the exercise of arbitrary and ad hoc power. Instead of having a clear framework for Serbia/EU relations, the carrot of EU aid and membership talks has been used as a pragmatic and instrumental tool by institutions seeking to influence the ‘composition and programme’ of the Serbian government (9).

While critics of Serbia bemoan its chairmanship of the Council of Europe, they overlook the EU and the Council’s incessant intervention into Serbia’s democratic process. They present Serbia as a threat to European values, when in fact Serbia is being forced to mould itself around such values or else face being ostracised.

David Chandler is Professor of International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His latest book is Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-building.

(1) George Monbiot, ‘The price of being left alone has been the tolerance of mass murder’, Guardian, 8 May 2007

(2) Terry Davis, ‘Response: I don’t regret allowing Serbia to join us’, Guardian, 11 May 2007

(3) Conor Foley, Keeping the Council, Comment is Free, 9 May 2007

(4) Conor Foley, Keeping the Council, Comment is Free, 9 May 2007

(5) Terry Davis, ‘Response: I don’t regret allowing Serbia to join us’, Guardian, 11 May 2007

(6) Ian Traynor, ‘Extreme nationalist elected speaker of Serbian parliament’, Guardian, 9 May 2007

(7) Ian Traynor, ‘Extreme nationalist elected speaker of Serbian parliament’, Guardian, 9 May 2007

(8) Serbia forms pro-EU government, EurActiv, 14 May 2007

(9) Reuters, EU Urges Serbia to Finalise New Government, 14 May 2007

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Topics Politics


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