The False Attraction of Orban’s Europe

Ahead of every EU-Balkan summit in recent years, the same struggle, Sofia in 2018, in Zagreb last year and in Brdo last week, EU member states are haggling how to call the thing that they are offering the countries of the Western Balkans, enlargement, a “European perspective“ or even less. Once more, in Brdo, the future of the region was based on a last-minute compromise, calling for a “European perspective” and the “enlargement process”, as if the process is more important than the outcome. In the end it is a semantic exercise that cannot disguise the fact that enlargement is no longer a common project of the EU member states as it was 18 years ago when EU membership was offered to the countries of the region membership at the famous summit in Thessaloniki. Today, the EU seems to be divided between the supporters of enlargement, such as Germany, Austria, Italy and Hungary and the sceptics including France and the Netherlands. However, the narrative of sceptics and supports is misleading. Some supporters have become the biggest obstacles. While Bulgaria pushed for enlargement during its presidency in 2018, it has sabotaged not just accession talks with North Macedonia (and by extension Albania), but also discredited the Commissions claim that the accession process would be merit based. By bringing in identity questions and insisting that the Macedonian government acknowledges a Bulgarian nationalist view of history, it undermines pro-EU forces in North Macedonia send the message that no matter what problems countries in the Western Balkans might solve, they can be derailed by petty nationalist positions of a member state.

On the other side, some critics, such as France, have now supported accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, despite misgivings about membership. Finally, Germany under Chancellor Merkel und Commission president van der Leyen have supported enlargement, but hurt it, but not sending clearer messages to the region and its leaders when they visit the Balkans. Just recently during her visit, von der Leyen praised Vučić for „a strong focus on fundamental reforms. I commend you for the steps you have taken. This is enormous. You have done a lot of hard work. This hard work pays off. It is amazing to see the progress.” Considering developments in Serbia, this seems either insincere or misguided, either way, it sends the message that the EU will continue to provide uncritical photo opportunities for autocrats and hardly helping to keep up the pressure to take accession seriously.

The European politician, who seems to have been the steadiest supporter of enlargement in recent years is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In a recent ad published in some European newspapers, Orban outlined his vision for Europe, point 7 demands that Serbia join the EU. A recent BiEPAG poll suggests that Orban is the third most popular foreign politician in Serbia after Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, ahead of other EU leaders such as Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron.

Olivér Várhelyi, the EU Commissioner in charge of enlargement and Orbans candidate, turned out to be following Orbans model rather than the EU approach. A recent Politico article suggest that Várhelyi has been shaping and influencing internal EU documents to downplay problems with the rule of law in Serbia and diverging form the position of the Commission and his department.

None of this helps Serbia. Instead, Orban has become a false friend of enlargement. Nobody can more effectively bury the EU prospects for Serbia and the resto f the region then him.
Orban is promoting Serbian membership for two reasons. The first one is migration, as Orban himself stated in Bled in August 2020: “The first of these tasks is that we must unhesitatingly admit Serbia to the European Union as soon as possible, because without Serbia Europe’s security structure is not complete. There is a gap in the system. To give you a tangible example, this is also where migrants are coming through.” This reflects his focus on refugees and would shift the external border of the EU away from Hungary. More importantly Is the second reason. Serbia under Vucic is governed a lot like Hungary und Orban. A strong leader who disregards rule of law, systematically undermines media freedom and marginalises the opposition. More autocrats in his style would give him greater leverage in the EU and shelter him.

For Serbia, this vision of Orban’s Europe, run by nationalist, anti-migrant autocrats is bad news for Serbia. This vision of Europe does not require Serbia to be democratic, or based on legal certainty, as long as it guards European borders. Second, by promoting Serbia, is closing its door to the EU. Orban has some allies, such as Janez Janša and the Polish government, but mostly he is isolated. His partial ally Andrej Babiš just lost power in the Czech Republic and Janša might not last long as prime minister, his party stagnates at less than 30% support, even if it is the single largest party. The next German government is likely to be more critical of Orban and also Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz, who has the closest support among European conservative PMs next to Janša is out of office. At home, his power is also fragile, as for the first time, the opposition appears to manage to coordinate a joint candidate and polls put the united opposition slightly ahead of Fidesz, with parliamentary elections due next year. In a year from now, Orban and his close ally might be out of office.

Even if this does not happen, Orbans support is a “Medveđa usluga” a disservice, as it only reaffirms the opposition from enlargement skeptics to any country joining the EU. France and the Netherlands, two of the most skeptical countries agreed to the new methodology, yet untested, as it would allow for reversibility in the accession process and closer monitoring. Orban’s—and with it Várhelyi’s—support for Serbia is the opposite, not based on the criteria, uncritical and thus certain to trigger opposition by France and other sceptics at some point. Serbia’s future in the European Union looks more uncertain than ever with Orban has its supporter. This might suit Vučić, who has been systematically reducing support for EU membership among the population due to the anti-EU campaign by pro-regime media for years. As a result, citizens of Serbia are least convinced about joining the EU. Only 53.2% are mostly or fully in favour of joining the EU in a poll over the summer by IPSOS, commissioned by BiEPAG, whereas in the rest of the region, the numbers are between 78.5% in North Macedonia and 93.7% in Albania. The low numbers are thus not a result of the long wait or unfair treatment, North Macedonia beats Serbia on both, but due to government spin.

The combination of the false promise of Orbans path to the European Union and the anti-European spin of the Vučić government are helping to bury the prospect of enlargement, more so than the countries that are sceptical about new countries joining the EU.

The text was published in Serbian as Лажна привлачност Орбанове Европе in NIN on 14.10.2021

Don’t let the Roma represent themselves, they can’t be trusted

Some interviews are best without any comment. Here is an interview with Bela Kurina, who represents the Roma Democratic Party in the Novi Sad assembly. The party caught some attention in May already for not having a SINGLE Roma representative among the six candidates it received after winning 6.4 % of the vote in local elections. Kurin, a former official of JUL and DSS, noted that there are Herzegovinians, Slavonians and Montenegrins on the list, but Roma could be too easily bought to be put on the list.  It isn’t clear who the president of the party is as Blic notes that the president is Tomislav Bokan, who also used to be a DSS official and for the SRS and put three family members on the party list [comment by Kurin: if there were 78 Bokans, they would all be on the list of the party].  There have been some suggestions in Danas, that its electoral success might have been helped by, how shall we call it, some financial assistance to voters.

Now Kurin gave an interview a la for the Vojvodina show politbiro that was re-broadcast on RTS in the talk show “Da mozda ne” on 13 December 2012.

Here are some highlights in English:

“Imagine that we would have Roma on the list of candidates for councilors. This is something I could not allow. You know what happens, not just here, but also in general in Serbia in parliament that the seat [of an MP of councilor] belongs to the person and not the party and that he can decide with whom to be. We simply did not want to have people in the party who will sell themselves… The only party that until the end of the four year mandate [he has a bit of hard time getting that straight], the Roma Democratic Party cannot be manipulated with and not one councilor can be bought because these are people with a material basis and serious, and I think that there is no price for buying councilors of party.”

“We asked from them for the city cleaning considering, as you know, this is Roma business, or rather Roma mostly work there… we were promised this by [the DS] and when we asked for this after the formation of local government, this [option] was for a reason I don’t know eliminated.”

“We also asked for half of the gardening services…in the end we ourselfs said, don’t give us the gardening services, just give us the cleaning services. If we manage this, we can see what we can do, but they did not give it out, they want to control everything.”

And thus the incorruptable Roma Democratic Party broke with the Democratic Party and joined the Progressive Party in their new city government. Now they got their control over the cleaning services, as well as Urbanism (including tourism). And thus the benevolent non-Roma can unselfishly employ some more Roma in Novi Sad.

[thanks to Dušan Pavlović for drawing my attention to this interview]

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