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news 09 Feb 17

Anti-EU Tide is Rising in Serbia, NGO Warns

Head of Serbia's European Movement, an NGO, says growing criticism by Serbian officials of the EU is undermining people's support for - and understand of - the European project.

Maja Zivanovic

Maja Bobic I Photo by: Media Centre Belgrade

The recent rise in anti-EU rhetoric among Serbian officials, according to Maja Bobic from the European Movement in Serbia, is affecting people's understanding of the benefits of EU integration.

“There is always some ambivalence, where on one hand we want to join the EU, get financial support from it and build a model of society as in the EU, and on the other hand we often hear that the EU is blackmailing us and that it is not, in some way, Serbia’s ally,” Bobic said.

Although anti-EU parties had always been present in the country, and Belgrade’s state officials in past routinely criticized some EU moves in relations to Serbia, anti-EU statements by state officials had become louder and more present lately, she said.

This rise followed a spike of tensions between Kosovo and Serbia and the EU's decision to raise the Brussels-mediated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina to the highest level by inviting Presidents and Prime Ministers of both countries to join meetings in Belgium.

Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo soared in January after Serbia tried sending a train to the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica covered in Serbian flags and slogans - and after Kosovo threatened to demolish a wall erected by Serbs in the divided town of Mitrovica.

After a first meeting in Brussels on January 24, both sides agreed to calm the tensions, pacify the rhetoric and not leak details of the Brussels talks.

According to diplomatic sources, a second meeting on February 1 was reportedly a failure - and the participants again omitted to give details of what was said after the meeting.

Afterwards, Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia's Prime Minister, criticised the EU on February 3, stating impatiently that Brussels needed to take a clearer position and hold on to what was agreed “for at least 15 minutes”.

Vucic also accused the EU of lacking the courage to say which side had violated the Serbia-Kosovo agreements.

Aleksandar Vulin, Serbia's Labour Minister, earlier criticised the EU on January 25, saying that it should compel Kosovo President Hashim Thaci to keep his given word on not commenting on the talks - after Thaci revealed certain details.

“Otherwise, the EU's credibility as a mediator of the talks will be permanently damaged,” Vulin said.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic on January 24 also criticised the EU for its “neutral attitude” towards the rise in tensions with Kosovo, adding that Serbia would not let the EU blackmail it, without explaining what blackmail he was exactly referring to.

Meanwhile, the Serbian People's Party, a junior coalition partner of the ruling Progressive Party in Belgrade, has taken a tougher line, urging Serbia's government to stop the dialogue with Pristina completely.

The party said on February 5 that Kosovo-Serbia deals agreements reached in Brussels were now "lapsed and dead" and Serbia should lead a sovereign policy, relying on "true friends and allies - the Russian Federation and Russian president Vladimir Putin".

Pro-EU opinion in Serbia is in decline, survey suggest.

According to a survey conducted by Serbia’s European Integration Office and published on February 6, if a referendum was held on Serbian membership of the EU, only 47 per cent would be in favour, 29 per cent would be against, 15 per cent would not vote, and 9 per cent would not know what to answer.

The survey included 1,054 respondents and was carried out in December.

The office has been conducting same survey for years, and the latest results confirm a decline in support for Serbia’s EU accession in the last five years. Since June 2014, it has constantly been below 50 per cent.

Bobic said the politicians' rhetoric was clearly affecting people's mood and their perception of what the EU is, what it means to Serbia and what the process of integration involves.

“Very often we hear such rhetoric from the Serbian President, the foreign ministry, [especially] when Serbia is opening or closing EU chapters,” Bobic said.

She believes that anti-EU speech is being crudely used to mobilize voters but is damaging people’s view of the EU and their understanding of Serbia’s rights and responsibilities - damage that would be difficult to repair.

BIRN tasked the Serbian Progressive Party to comment on this trend but got no response.

Bobic noted that anti-EU rhetoric is now present in all EU member states.

“Very often the EU serves as a culprit for national elites to avoid all internal problems and assume responsibility [for them]. So it's a trend that is becoming increasingly common,” Bobic concluded.

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