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Suspicion and skepticism towards Europe and the West in general have been a constant feature of a considerable part of Serbian society and politics over the last two decades. Such sentiments particularly flourished at the time of nationalistic euphoria and the wars that raged across the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s. While in other Central and Eastern European states ‘returning to Europe’ was a key foreign policy objective and a common theme as a symbol of democracy and prosperity, the leading Serbian parties at that time - the Socialist Party of Serbia and the Serbian Radical Party - were Eurosceptic and nationalist, and their political agenda had nothing to do with potential Serbian accession into the EU. However, in the period after 2000, the political scene in Serbia has experienced a fundamental transformation of a type that is rarely seen in countries with a longer tradition of democratic institutions and multi-party political systems. Some of the hardest nationalists have become vocal advocates of Serbian membership of the EU, while at the same time some of the democratic parties that overthrew Milošević’s regime have turned into key opponents of further Serbian EU accession.
This chapter examines the causes and consequences of the pronounced Eurosceptic sentiments among Serbian political elites. It aims to demonstrate how the question of European integration as a salient political issue has shaped a party system, as well as how it has been used by Eurosceptic parties in their policies and rhetoric since 2000. It also examines whether party ideology or strategy is a key driver of their positions on Europe. In order to capture peculiar features of Serbian party-based Euroscepticism, this analysis employs a framework that draws on and combines the two most widely used theoretical concepts. It examines party attitudes towards Europe, conceptualized as positions on the EU and positions on Serbian EU membership, and classifies parties into four distinct categories: Hard Eurosceptics and Hard Euro enthusiasts as well as Soft Eurosceptics and Soft Euro enthusiasts. The empirical focus of the text is on the Hard Eurosceptic Serbian Radical Party and the Soft Democratic Party of Serbia, and a group of Soft Euro enthusiastic parties - the Serbian Progressive Party, the Socialist Party of Serbia and the New Serbia.
The text argues, firstly, that Serbian party-based Euroscepticism is a consequence of traditional and deep-seated animosity and suspicion towards Europe and the West in general (Serbian Radical Party) as well as principled disagreement with the policy of the EU and its key member states towards the former Yugoslavia, and in particular with regard to the issue of Kosovo’s status (Democratic Party of Serbia). Secondly, parties characterized as ‘hard’ proponents or opponents of the EU or Serbian EU integration have been consistent over time and their positions are primarily ideologically driven. On the other side, parties that belong to the ‘soft’ categories have largely adopted (and changed) positions according to strategic and electoral considerations. The decision of these parties to shift stances on Serbian EU membership is thus a highly pragmatic one, aimed at maximizing chances of coming to power. Finally, party positions on EU membership tend to be much more easily shifted than their positions on the EU itself. The fact that it is harder for parties to change their attitudes towards the EU may indicate that such attitudes are more ideologically grounded and, as such, may reveal a real underlying position on Europe, unlike their stances on joining the EU, which have proved to have a more practical and strategic basis.
The analysis is based on parties’ public statements, parliamentary voting on key European issues, as well as their programmatic documents. It also draws on interviews conducted with senior party officials from all relevant parliamentary parties. The text first briefly reviews the theoretical literature and then outlines a conceptual framework to be used in the analysis. The text examines in greater detail the individual party attitudes and policies with regard to the EU. The final conceptual and empirical findings on the nature of party-based Euroscepticism in Serbia are summarized in the conclusion.
The national parties’ responses to Europe have become the topic of a growing body of literature. The literature addressing the issue of party-based Euroscepticism in Central and Eastern Europe has particularly flourished, although a large majority of authors deal with individual case studies and rarely offer a conceptual framework for analysis of Eurosceptic party stances. Nevertheless, two theoretical approaches to party attitudes to Europe stand out as the most widely used in the comparative literature, namely the concept of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Euroscepticism, and a categorization of both positive and negative party positions on Europe.
The first term initially implied ‘a principled opposition to the EU and European integration and therefore can be seen in parties who think that their countries should withdraw from membership, or whose policies towards the EU are tantamount to being opposed to the whole project of European integration as it is currently conceived’. The second terms referred to a party position ‘where there is not a principled objection to the European integration or EU membership, but where concerns on one (or a number) of policy areas lead to the expression of qualified oppositions to the EU, or where there is a sense that “national interest” is currently at odds with the EU trajectory’. Some authors later reformulated this concept and abandoned the idea that attitudes towards a country’s membership of the EU should be viewed as the ultimate litmus test of whether a party belongs to the Hard or Soft Eurosceptic camp. They specifically argued that the key variables in determining party attitudes should be underlying support for or opposition to the European integration project as embodied in the EU, as well as attitudes towards further actual or planned extensions of EU competencies, rather than a party’s stances to their country’s membership at any given time.
On the other hand, the concept developed by Kopecky and Mudde covered both pro- and anti-EU positions and introduced a distinction between support for the ideas of European integration that underlie the EU and support for the EU as it is in reality. They further made a distinction between Europhiles and Europhobes based on support for, or opposition to, the ideas of European integration, as well as between EU optimists and EU pessimists based on the attitudes to the EU as it is or as it is developing. As a consequence, the authors constructed the four ideal-type categories of party positions on Europe.
Euro enthusiasts thus combine Europhile and EU-optimist positions and support both the general ideas of European integration and the EU as it is. Eurosceptics express Europhile and EU-pessimist positions and support the general ideas of European integration but are pessimistic about the EU as such. Euro rejects adopt Europhobe and EU-pessimist attitudes and oppose both the ideas underlying the process of European integration and the EU. Finally, Euro pragmatists combine Europhobe and EU-optimist positions as they do not support the general ideas underlying the EU but support the EU.
These theoretical frameworks have been successfully applied by their authors in the case of Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. Moreover, a number of other scholars have used the same frameworks, particularly the concept of Soft and Hard Euroscepticism. These authors often adapted the original concepts in order to fully capture specific features of individual case studies. Henderson (2008) thus analysed Slovak parties by adding a category of ‘phony Europhiles’ to capture those parties that are strategically in favour of EU integration, but reluctant to face that this has implications for domestic politics and that it requires an engagement with the realities of Western democratic principles. Conti (2003) analysed Italian parties and introduced a neutral category, defined as lacking a clear position on European integration, which is the position of a party in transition between past and new positions or of a recently born party on the way to shaping its preferences. This study similarly argues that these two key concepts may also be employed in the Serbian case, but that they should be slightly adapted in order to grasp all the peculiar features of Serbian party stances, which are the result of the fact that the EU is perceived differently in a candidate state with rather specific relations with the EU. It therefore applies the original concept of Hard and Soft Euroscepticism, which, unlike the reformulated concept, takes into consideration party stances on EU membership and consequently, in the context of Serbian party politics, more accurately classifies their positions. Hard Eurosceptic parties in the case of Serbia thus argue that the country should not join the EU (withdraw from membership in the original concept) and oppose, although less vocally, the whole project of European integration (Serbian Radical Party). Soft Eurosceptic parties, while they do not express principled objection to European integration or EU membership, argue that the ‘national interest’, that is preservation of Kosovo within Serbia, is at odds with Serbian EU membership (Democratic Party of Serbia).
On the other side, the concept of Kopecky and Mudde requires rather nuanced and clearly differentiated party positions on ideas of European integration that underlie the EU as well as the EU as it is in reality. However, Serbian parties have not publicly elaborated such attitudes (neither in party rhetoric nor programmatic documents), although when directly asked about it, the interviewed party officials did express strong opinions. Szczerbiak (2008: 239) also pointed to this issue when analysing Polish parties in the pre-accession period and argued that ‘there was simply not enough data available at that time, either from the party’s published policy statements or from statements by its representative leaders, to be able to categorize the party as being Eurosceptic or not’. This can be explained by the fact that citizens and voters know almost nothing about the EU, and political parties have no incentive to exploit these issues, unlike the issue of Serbia’s membership in the EU, on which almost every citizen has an opinion. As a result, all Serbian parties have adopted elaborated positions on Serbian membership in the EU.
In order to allow a comparative analysis with parties in other CEE states, but at the same time to present the peculiar features of party stances on Europe in the context of Serbian party politics, the study combines these two approaches. The rationale behind this lies in that, while the first approach, when adjusted to a candidate state, may account for Hard and Soft Eurosceptic parties, it may not explain the position of former Eurosceptic parties and why some parties changed attitudes towards Europe. Therefore, the study also adapts and employs Kopecky and Mudde’s (2002) concept. It specifically proposes the similar fourfold categorization of parties, but it reformulates key indicators on which the classification of parties has been based. First, given that Serbian parties have not had clearly defined attitudes towards the ideas that permeate European integration or the EU as it is, these two indicators are grouped into one category labeled ‘the attitude towards the EU’, to encompass all possible and not fully differentiated positions on the EU. On the other hand, the concept uses ‘the attitudes towards Serbian EU membership’, which is a priority for all parties in the country, as another important indicator of their overall attitudes towards Europe.
Drawing on these two theoretical models, the concept combines negative and positive attitudes towards the EU and Serbian EU membership, and groups Serbian parties into four basic categories that may account for their complex attitudes towards Europe. The group of parties that supports Serbian EU membership and the EU is therefore characterized as Hard Euro enthusiasts, while parties that expressed a negative position on both issues are termed Hard Eurosceptics. On the other side, parties that support Serbian EU membership, but have a neutral position, or combine both positive and negative stances, or have critical although not opposing attitudes to the EU are termed Soft Euro enthusiasts, while those with similar attitudes to the EU, but opposed to Serbian EU membership are characterized as Soft Eurosceptics.
This concept also aims to address another key issue discussed in the comparative literature on Euroscepticism - whether parties’ positions on Europe are ideologically- or strategically-driven. The study argues that both factors may have explanatory value in the Serbian case and identifies two key tendencies. First, it appears that positions of parties categorized as Hard Eurosceptic and Hard Euro enthusiasts are primarily ideologically driven. These parties have not markedly changed their positive (or negative) position on Europe since they were founded, despite sometimes moderated rhetoric employed by some Hard Eurosceptic parties for strategic, electoral reasons. The deeper rootedness of their positions may be also seen in the fact that there is no contradiction in their positions, since they have consistently supported (or opposed) both the EU and Serbia’s EU membership. Hard Euroscepticism perceived in this way is in line with the original Szczerbiak and Taggart’s (2008) concept of principled opposition to the EU and the country’s EU membership, while it is similar to the Euroreject category of Kopecky and Mudde (2002), although not the same, since these authors disregard EU membership as an indicator of party positions on Europe.
On the other hand, the attitudes of parties termed Soft Eurosceptic and Soft Euro enthusiastic have primarily been pragmatically formed. These parties are mainly guided by strategic, electoral considerations rather than ideological principles. This has been evidenced by the fact that they have fundamentally changed positions on Serbian EU membership in the past decade in an attempt to gain political power. Soft Euro enthusiasts thus, as noted by Kopecky and Mudde (2002: 303) with regard to the Euro pragmatist category, ‘do not hold a firm ideological opinion on European integration, and decide to assess EU (membership) positively on the basis of pragmatic considerations’, because they deem it profitable for their country or electorally desirable. In addition, their stances on the EU are not elaborated for strategic reasons to mask often negative stances in order to legitimize themselves as pro-European parties. Therefore, their position on the EU is a combination of neutral and positive (Socialist Party of Serbia), and neutral and negative (Serbian Progressive Party, New Serbia) attitudes. Soft Euro enthusiasm is also devoid of the illogical feature of the Euro pragmatist category, that is that parties opposed to EU integration in principle are supportive of the EU’s current trajectory, because it is possible and politically viable that a party strategically supports EU membership despite opposition to, or a lack of attitude towards, the EU. Given the strategic nature of their attitudes and a lack of grounded stances on the EU, these parties may become Soft Eurosceptic and start advocating opposition to a country’s EU membership. Such parties do not express principled objection to the EU or EU membership, but decide to focus on the prevailing Eurosceptic electorate, exploit their concerns for the country’s EU membership deal and express qualified opposition to the country’s EU accession, in order to secure more votes (New Serbia between 2008 and 2010). In addition, the position of the Democratic Party of Serbia, elaborated later in the study, is characterized as Soft Euroscepticism, although it is rather unique, since its opposition to Serbian EU membership is not strategically driven.
Individual Party Positions
The next section deals with individual party positions on Europe. As conceptualized above, party attitudes are examined in relation to both the EU and Serbian EU membership. The attitudes of Hard and Soft Eurosceptic parties are first analysed, followed by the study of parties that have shifted stances on Europe in 2008 and are thus termed Soft Euro enthusiasts. Serbian Radical Party: Deep-seated animosity towards the EU The Serbian Radical Party (SRS) is a radical right and nationalistic party whose fundamental political aim was ‘the unification of the entire Serbian nation and establishment of a single, unitary state, a Great Serbia, on the whole Serbian national territory, which would include Serbia, Montenegro, the Republic of Srpska and the Republic of Serbian Krajina’ (SRS 2009: 2). Its programme (SRS 2009) also advocated development of national consciousness and patriotism, preservation of national traditions, protection of the traditional Serbian family and bringing up the youth in Serbian Orthodox spirit. The party has always expressed firm opposition to Serbian integration into the EU, despite occasional moderation of its discourse in the mid-2000s. While its position on the EU was less pronounced in public discourse and programmatic documents, it was also strongly negative. Therefore, the Serbian Radical Party may be termed a Hard Eurosceptic party, given its principled and ideologically driven objection to both the EU and Serbian EU membership.
Attitudes toward the EU were largely absent from the party documents and public rhetoric. The party did not express in its programmatic documents fully elaborated attitudes towards the EU, although its programme demonstrated the party’s anti-globalist character by pledging ‘to make Serbia a member of international organizations that respect its interests and the principle of noninterference in internal affairs of sovereign countries’ (SRS 2009: 29). The party thus proclaimed that it was in favour of international organizations ‘whose activities are based on cooperation and solidarity, rather than pressure, blackmail and force’ (SRS 2009: 29). The absence of specifically anti-EU discourse can be explained by the fact that the essence of European integration was unknown to the Serbian public and voters, and therefore criticism of the EU could not bring considerable political gains, unlike a strong party objection to the EU’s policy towards Serbia. However, following the 2008 financial crisis, one can observe this party’s attempt to present the EU as a completely failed experiment of the western European elites that exclusively serves the economic interests of the rich Member States. Martinović, the party MP and a deputy president of the parliamentary group, argued that ‘the EU is a political, economic and moral corpse, given that Greece is technically bankrupt, and that a similar scenario is almost inevitable in Ireland, Italy and Spain’. The Radical MP Mirović similarly pointed out that ‘the EU is only useful for Western European members, while it is absolutely useless for Eastern Europe. The very existence of the EU is the result of the interests of the largest exporters and in any case it is not in the interest of small nations’.
The Radicals support ‘the De Gaulle principle of a Europe of nations from the Urals to the Atlantic’, since they argue ‘Europe cannot be whole without Russia’, while their preferred form of European organization is Europol and the Council of Europe, because ‘the Russians are also there’. Interestingly, they also argue that the European Parliament is a second-rate institution, while the European Council is an undemocratic body given that ‘there is not a similar system in the world, where the laws are passed by the ministers’ (Mirović 2011). Martinović (2011) concluded that ‘the EU is too cumbersome and bureaucratic organisation that has lost the purpose of its existence’.
On the other side, the Serbian Radical Party has always been a principled opponent of Serbian accession to the EU. Such a position was primarily ideologically driven and deeply rooted, and as such has been consistent over the time. The party, however, experienced a moderation of its public rhetoric in the mid-2000s, but it has never fundamentally changed policies. The case of this party demonstrates the analytically significant difference, identified by Szczerbiak and Taggart, between a party’s underlying position on the EU (and EU membership in this case) and its public rhetoric, which may be the result of strategic considerations and not necessarily an indicator of the real party position.
This party position on Serbian EU membership was directly related to intra-party power struggles. When in 2003, a party leader, Vojislav Šešelj, went to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a party deputy president, Tomislav Nikolić, and a secretary-general, Aleksandar Vučić, took over the party leadership. The party managed to win the 2003, 2007 and 2008 elections and become individually the largest party in the parliament, securing up to 29 per cent of the total votes. The electoral success of the Radicals was primarily due to a moderated nationalistic rhetoric that emphasized socioeconomic issues, such as unemployment, privatization and corruption, rather than nationalism. In addition, the Radicals strategically opted to tone down its opposition to Serbian EU membership, given that a large majority of voters supported Serbian EU accession. Nikolić even declared in the 2003 presidential election campaign that ‘he and his party will provide a full contribution to Serbian accession to all European institutions and organizations, particularly the EU, but by preserving Serbian identity, national pride, honour and dignity’. The case of the Radicals in the mid-2000s therefore demonstrates the strong electoral incentive to moderate pronounced Eurosceptic rhetoric even when a party is deeply ideologically grounded in anti-Europeanism. The strategic nature of the Radicals’ rhetoric shift was, however, visible at times when electoral concerns were less important, that is in the period immediately after the elections. For instance, in May 2007, Nikolić, as a temporary speaker of the parliament, argued that Serbia should seek closer ties with Russia and not the West. He said that Russia would bring together ‘nations that will stand up against the hegemony of America and the European Union’ and that ‘Serbia should associate itself with the Russian and Belarusian union’ (RFERL 2007a). He also claimed that a majority in Serbia would strive for membership in a Russian-led alliance of states and not in the EU and added that ‘unfortunately Serbia was not a Russian province’ (RFERL 2007a). The shift in rhetoric was recognized by the EU, whose enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn warned that ‘the election of an ultranationalist as Serbia’s parliamentary speaker is a worrying sign’ and that Serbia was ‘at a crossroads’ (RFERL 2007b). Finally, in the words of Mirović, at that time the party had ‘a rather populist and pragmatic rhetoric’, arguing that Serbia could join the EU, provided that the EU recognized that Kosovo was part of Serbia, ‘due to popularity of the EU with the Serbian electorate’. He added that this was the pure pragmatism of a former party leadership, based on the results of public opinion research, which showed that a majority of citizens were in favour of the EU, and not a result of the belief that it was in the interest of Serbia.
Following one more failed attempt to form a government in 2008, and faced with the fact that moderated rhetoric did not bring tangible results (mainly due to the party’s a lack of coalition potential), Nikolić became aware that if the party was to take political power, it must fully reorient its policies. However, that was not possible under the leadership of charismatic party leader Šešelj, who had overwhelming support for his nationalistic and anti-European policy. This consequently led to a party split and the foundation of the new Serbian Progressive Party. After a major intra-party schism in September 2008, which shook the very foundations of the party, the Radicals reaffirmed their principled position - an absolute and unconditional opposition to Serbian EU integration.
The Serbian Radical Party’s opposition to Serbian integration into the EU was primarily ideologically driven, given that the party was deeply grounded in the pronounced ideology of anti-Westernism. The party programmatic documents, as well as the discourse of its leader Šešelj, demonstrated traditional skepticism, a deep-seated animosity, and even hatred towards the EU and the West in general. In his 2006 political testament, Šešelj called on party members to ‘strongly oppose any attempts to include Serbia in NATO and the EU, because all traditional Serbian enemies are there’. He went on to argue that ‘they (members of the EU) have been furious with us because the Serbs had defeated their grandfathers and ancestors who therefore left a testament to their heirs to punish Serbia’.
The Radicals argued that EU candidacy status was a poor reward ‘considering how many of our children, mothers and fathers, and brothers and sisters were killed by criminals from NATO and leading members of the EU, and when we remember how many of our heroes were extradited to the Hague dungeon’. The party believed that the EU, through its rule-of-law mission in Kosovo, directly created an independent state on the territory of Serbia. It called on the government to suspend all negotiations with the EU and ‘to give up the disastrous policies of European integration and turned to the countries that respect international law and territorial integrity of Serbia’ (SRS 2010). The party claimed that Serbian EU accession was ‘a suicidal policy of destruction of the Serbian state’. The Radicals also accused the ruling pro-European coalition of having obedient and treacherous policies that led to territorial dismemberment, the giving up of Kosovo, and sacrificing the lives of Serbian people by orders of Brussels and Washington.
The Serbian Radical Party, in contrast, expressed a pronounced pro-Russian orientation. The party believed that gradual opening of the market for EU products, which is provided for in the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, would have extremely negative consequence for the economy and that ‘the only salvation for Serbian foundering economy is in close connections with Russia’. It is also the only relevant party that advocated full Serbian membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of a number of former Soviet republics. In summary, the party politics was a reflection of traditionally anti-European sentiments, which have been a constant feature of a considerable part of Serbian society and politics over the last two decades. Moreover, the controversial policy of key EU members regarding the issue of Kosovo and related preconditions for Serbian EU accession further reaffirmed its principled anti-EU attitudes.
The text finally argues that tactical reasons may not be considered as a factor that impact on this party’s attitude. Hard Euroscepticism was, however, an electorally profitable position since the 2008 proclamation of Kosovo’s independence, which was widely perceived in the Serbian public as directly sponsored by key EU Member States. Serbia’s EU integration was supported by 51 per cent of citizens in December 2011, which was the lowest support since 2002 (SEIO 2012), and the party therefore had pragmatic and strategic incentives to maintain, rather than change its Hard Euroscepticism. Nevertheless, the downward trend in support for Serbian EU accession may be seen as reinforcement, rather than a cause of party attitudes, given that it had essentially maintained such a policy even when the EU was more popular with the Serbian voters.