Serbians are urging the government for domestic reforms, regardless of EU accession.
By Lily Lynch and Bojana Milovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 27/08/12
Support for EU membership has declined to 49 percent and is dropping. [Reuters]
While popular support for EU membership in Serbia has dropped to less than 50 percent for the first time in a decade, a new poll suggests that a strong majority of Serbia citizens are eager for social and economic reforms that are vital to the accession process.
If a referendum on Serbia's entrance into the EU were held today, 49 percent of citizens would vote in favour of joining the EU, while 25 percent would vote against it, according to results from a new public poll released by the Serbian European Integration Office on Monday (August 20th).
But the same poll found that 68 percent believe that Serbia needs significant reforms, with or without EU membership. The fight against corruption was identified by 41 percent of respondents as one of the areas in most urgent need of reform.
"Another major thing in the [EU accession] process are internal reforms, foremost of which is the fight against corruption. European integration is the wind in the sails of the fight against corruption, and when the government says it will accelerate the European integration process, it also refers to that heated battle," Suzana Grubjesic, deputy prime minister in charge of European integration, told SETimes.
While the new governing coalition in Serbia is headed by two former ultranationalists, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, of the Socialist Party of Serbia, and President Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Progressive Party, both campaigned as heads of reform-oriented, pro-EU parties, and have vowed to continue on the path towards EU membership.
A significant number of survey respondents, 41 percent, said they see Kosovo's status as the main stumbling block on Serbia's path to the EU. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but the Serbian government has said it will not recognize an independent Kosovo, even if doing so becomes a precondition for joining the EU.
Despite statements given by officials, 61 percent of Serbs polled said that the problems between Belgrade and Pristina should be resolved regardless of whether or not the EU demands it.
A protestor holds an anti-EU banner in front of Knez Mihajlo's monument in Belgrade on March 17th. [Reuters]
"Everything is known, the agreements already made between Belgrade and Pristina should be respected, and the dialogue on important matters, such as electricity and telecommunications, should continue," Laslo Varga, deputy chairman of the European Integration Committee, told SETimes.
Varga said the new government's strategy is to run talks with Pristina at a higher level than in the past in the hope it will yield better results for Serbia.
The government will abide by all previously reached agreements, primarily regarding the Belgrade-Pristina talks, according Grubjesic.
Continual demands on Serbia regarding Kosovo and other issues, as well as the EU's own socio-economic problems, have contributed to increasing skepticism among the Serbian public about the worthiness of EU membership.
Many Serbs view the EU accession process as an exhausting race without a finish line in sight -- a marked difference from the time following the collapse of the Milosevic regime in 2000, when nearly two-thirds of the population supported EU integration.
"I truly used to believe EU membership was Serbia's salvation, but now I am tired of that talk," Bogdan Dragic, 53, Belgrade resident and professor of literature, told SETimes.
Dragic said that many Serbs still think the country should go down the EU path, but the Union has quite significant existential problems. "Now we are the last thing it thinks about," he added.
However, Ivan Knezevic, deputy secretary-general for the European Movement, told SETimes that politicians are partly to blame for the declining support for EU membership, as they have failed to communicate to ordinary people what integration into the EU will mean for them.
Serbia Prime Minister Ivica Dacic has vowed to continue on the path towards EU membership. [Reuters]
"Political elites in Serbia raised huge expectations for this process, but did not provide the people with the right information. They didn't explain to the public what the EU will bring to their lives. People don't understand that it will mean a lot, from environmental protections to the ability for consumers to fight corruption."
Grubjesic said the decline in public support for EU integration is primarily due to the previous government not taking difficult decisions about Serbia's internal organisation.
"A new approach to European integration is necessary, meaning that we have to openly tell the citizens what is expected in that process. The goal is not to satisfy Brussels, but rather to make things better here and thereby speed up the process," Grubjesic said.
Meanwhile, across the region, support for EU membership is generally higher than it is in Serbia. The results of a similar survey from Kosovo released earlier this month revealed that more than 70 percent of Kosovo's citizens would vote to enter the EU if there was a referendum on the issue.
In January of this year, Croatia held a referendum on EU membership, and 66 percent of voters backed EU accession. Croatia is slated to join the EU in July 2013.
Serbia has yet to get an official date to begin accession talks from the EU. By contrast, neighboring Montenegro has already obtained a negotiating date and Croatia will become an EU member next July.
EU representatives said the conditions for Serbia to get a negotiations date are well known and defined.
While others also have economic concerns, they support Serbia's membership in the EU. As Dejan Nikolic, a web entrepreneur told SETimes, "I am for getting our country in line with EU rules. At that point, joining or not becomes a matter of economics and not politics."