Interview with James Ker-Lindsay (LSE): “Serbia in the European Union: an exchange of values, not a bureaucratic formula”

Serbian Monitor talks to James Ker-Lindsay, Senior Research Fellow on the Southeast European politics from the London School of Economics and one of the foremost experts on the contemporary European secession conflicts and subsequent negotiation processes. He gives his opinion about Serbia’s pro-European political leaders, the inevitable acceptance of Kosovo’s independence and Serbia’s understanding of European values.

In a recent article you have argued that the transformation of Serbia’s policy towards Kosovo is based on political opportunism and material concerns (that is: finding a way out from a deep economic crisis), instead of substantial convergence on European values system. In summary, more a pragmatic approach of the actual government than an evidence of a genuine process of Europeanization of the country and its istitutions. Can you explain to our readers your point of view?
Very often observers will hold up changes to foreign policy as being some sort of evidence that a country is becoming more European. That it is adopting the fundamental norms and values of the European Union. We have seen such claims in the case of Serbia as regards its behaviour towards Kosovo. However, in the piece you mention, which I co-authored with my LSE colleague, Dr Spyros Economides, we challenge this view. We instead argue that the current position adopted by the Serbian Government is far better understood as a rational decision aimed at advancing the integration process, thereby securing EU financial support at a difficult economic time. This might sound as if we are being critical of the Serbian Government and arguing that its efforts are not sincere. Not at all. We are simply trying to explain what is happening in a value neutral sense. As we see it, the idea that there has been some sort of sudden transformation in Serbia and that it has suddenly understood and accepted the ‘European’ way of approaching difficult conflicts is premature. However, there is no denying that Belgrade has made very significant advances in the way in which it deals with Kosovo.
What are the risks for Serbia’s position in the integration process if its commitment will be seen only as the mere act of fulfilling the conditions for membership as laid down by the European Union?
There is always the danger that by simply viewing European integration as a series of tasks to be completed and boxes to be ticked the fundamental principles and values of the European Union are not internalised. A country may meet the conditions for operating as part of the Single Market. However, it will not really understand and behave in a European way. Joining the EU is not merely about accepting the rules. It is about accepting the fundamental philosophy that underpins those rules. It is about accepting liberal democratic values and appreciating that, no matter how serious a dispute, members of the EU will not resort to the threat, let alone use, of force to settle their differences. However, it takes time for this to be truly understood. My own view is that eventually countries do come to realise this, but that it is not something that tends to happen overnight.

Do you think that other Balkan countries already EU members, like Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, have a higher level of Europeanization than Serbia?
No. Not at all. If we look around, we can see that each of the countries of the region continue to face significant problems, albeit in different areas. For example, in terms of overall economic development, many Romanians have admitted that they know that Serbia is more advanced according to a number of indicators. If one looks at Bulgaria, there are still huge problems of corruption and organised that have not been adequately addressed, even after almost a decade of EU membership. Meanwhile, in Croatia, there we have seen the way in which it too has been turning its back on some of the liberal values espoused by the EU, for example the campaign to limit minority language rights. Certainly, Serbia faces it own set of problems. However, I certainly do not believe that it is inherently or intrinsically less European, or less able to Europeanise, than other countries in the region.
Having said this, where I do believe that there is a problem is in terms of the attitudes of many ordinary Serbs towards the EU. I do get a sense that there is a far greater degree of Euroscepticism in Serbia than elsewhere in the region. This is seen in the figures regarding support for EU accession. I think that many people in Serbia are suspicious of the EU, or see it as being against their interests. Contrary to what many in Serbia may think, there is no underlying sense in the EU that somehow Serbia is unsuited to membership. Indeed, most officials I speak to emphasise just how important it is to integrate Serbia. The sad thing is that, had it not been for the conflicts in the 1990s, most outside observers believe that Yugoslavia, either as a single state or as a collection of states that had separated peacefully, would probably have been at the top of the list for EU accession. Had it not been for the disastrous path Serbia took, it could well have been a member in 2004, if not before.
The quick turnabout of Tomislav Nikolic and Aleksandar Vucic about the issue of European integration and Kosovo’s implicit recognition is quite impressive. In your opinion what are the reasons of this radical change of their political position?
I think that there are a number of reasons behind this change. In large part, and as noted already, it is based on pragmatism. First of all, I should stress that I fully understand the sense of anger and betrayal that many in Serbia felt about the way that the Kosovo issue was handled by many EU members. I remember following the process closely (and wrote a book about it) and was very critical about the way that the issue was managed by the EU. However, I think that most people now understand that Kosovo is now gone. As painful as this may be in some senses, I also get the impression that most people know that this is for the best. Kosovo was a political and economic drain on Serbia. In the aftermath of the unilateral declaration of independence, Serbia did what it could to defend its claim to Kosovo. However, as time has passed, I think that a brave decision has also been taken by the government to focus on the things that really matter to most ordinary Serbs: economic growth and jobs. The best way to secure this is through EU accession. If this required normalising relations with Kosovo, then so be it. To this extent, I have never viewed Serbia’s willingness to engage in a process of normalisation with Pristina as somehow being unpatriotic. Rather, I think that the country’s leaders have recognised what will serve Serbia’s best interests and have acted accordingly.
Anyway, does this pragmatic cost-benefit approach of the Serbian government about the European integration could be the basis to promote a inner and real absorption by Serbian institutions and policy-makers of European principles?
Ultimately, yes. I do like to believe that exposure to the workings of the European Union does eventually lead to a fundamental transformation of attitudes; although my faith in this is being shaken by what we are seeing with Hungary and Poland at the moment. However, I also understand that this process of absorbing European values takes time. I really don’t think that Europeanisation can be imposed on a country. It takes a prolonged period of interaction with the EU before European principles and noms become truly embedded in a national culture through a process of social learning. Having said this, I do believe that this process can be speeded up. The use of conditionality is very useful in this regard. By forcing a country to behave in a certain way, even if it does not believe in those values at first, will eventually lead it to take on board those values and understand why they are important. For this reason, and as long as a country is willing to undertake the reforms necessary for membership, I have always supported the idea of pressing ahead with EU integration – even if there are reasons to believe that a country may be ‘faking’ Europeanisation.
Do you think that the negotiation process will last until there will be substantial evidence of Europeanization in Serbian society and institutions or the European Union will accept only a formal fulfillment of the conditions on each of 35 negotiation chapters?

In recent years, we have seen a greater emphasis on the extent to which countries trying to join the EU have adopted European values. After the mistakes that were made with Bulgaria and Romania, which were clearly not ready for membership when they joined, there has been a growing understanding within the EU that such mistakes cannot be repeated. And I think that this will almost certainly increase in the future. The EU now has 28 members. It is becoming increasingly hard to manage. If some members do not follow the principles and want to play by their own rules, as is the case with Poland and Hungary, we are now starting to see how much damage this can do to the EU. For this reason, I think that the EU will increasingly want to see evidence that new members will be good partners and will not be disruptive. This is the context in which Serbia – alongside the other countries of the Western Balkan – is now pursuing its EU membership. In the case of Serbia, one particular issue that has special significance is, of course, Kosovo. EU leaders understand the problems admitting a divided Cyprus in 2004 caused. They are determined not to permit this again. For this reason, I cannot see any hope of Serbia joining while the question of Kosovo is unresolved. 

Which have been, in your opinion, the most “European-minded” acts and decisions of Vucic government?
The decision to pursue the normalisation of relations with Kosovo is most widely regarded as the clearest ‘European-minded’ act of the government. The maintenance of this process will be vital to ensure Serbia’s continued path to the EU. However, looking ahead, the government will face a number of other major tests of its commitment to European Union membership in the period ahead. Perhaps the most important of these will be its overall approach to the negotiations. Crucially, it needs to be understood that, despite the name of the process, there is in fact very little negotiating. The EU says what needs to be done and the acceding country does it. It may be possible to get some concessions in terms of the timeframe for implementation. However, and except in very rare cases, the question of whether or not to pass a specific law is essentially non-negotiable. The best things that the government can do is just get to work passing the laws and, even more importantly, making sure that they are implemented. If it can do this, then it will really show that Serbia understands the EU and is ever more suited for membership.

This post is also available in: Italiano

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