German Chancellor Angela Merkel held a joint news conference with Serbian President Boris Tadic on Aug. 23 in Belgrade, the second stop on her tour of the Balkans. During the conference, Merkel noted that the determination of Serbia's EU candidacy status depended on progress on specific membership criteria, particularly some sort of resolution on the status of Kosovo. The pressure within Brussels to incorporate Serbia into the bloc eased with the conclusion of Croatia's EU accession negotiations in June. Additionally, Belgrade is set to hold contentious parliamentary elections in 2012 that will largely determine its stance on pursuing EU membership. By setting a resolution over Kosovo as a precondition to EU candidacy, Brussels is forcing Serbia to do some serious soul searching as a nation and decide unequivocally whether its future is further integration with Europe or greater political isolation in a Westernizing region.
Serbia's EU Accession Bid
With the European Union in the throes of a financial and potentially existential crisis
, EU expansion into the Balkans might seem like a low-priority item for Brussels. However, Europe has enduring geopolitical interests in the Balkans that existed long before the most recent institutional crisis and will remain long after. The Balkans region is a hotbed of political and ethno-national tensions, with a history of regional conflicts igniting much broader conflicts among greater European powers. In the current era, Europe's strategy for preventing instability from engulfing the region once again has centered on pushing pro-Western reforms throughout the Balkans
with the goal of integrating these countries into European political and security institutions. More recently, with the regional rises of Turkey and Russia, EU expansion has been seen as a way of mitigating Ankara's and Moscow's influence in Europe's backyard. Prior to Merkel's visit, many pro-Western Serbs believed that Serbia had fulfilled the last of the preconditions for its EU candidacy with the arrests of Ratko Mladic
, a Bosnian Serb general, and Goran Hadzic, a wartime rebel Croatian Serb political leader. Mladic and Hadzic, who were indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and accused of committing war crimes in the 1990s, were arrested in May and June, respectively. However, Merkel dashed the hopes of the pro-Western Serbs with her message. During the news conference, Merkel took care to reiterate that, while Germany wanted Serbia in the European Union, the determination of its candidacy status depended entirely on the progress Serbia made in its fulfillment of the specific membership criteria that have been laid out by Brussels. For Belgrade, the crux of the issue is the status of relations with Kosovo, a breakaway region of Serbia that declared unilateral independence in 2008. Specifically, Merkel said that for Serbia to gain candidacy status, Belgrade needed to make progress in dialogue with Kosovo, allow the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo to operate its mission in all parts of Kosovo and dismantle parallel administrative structures in Kosovo. This is problematic for Belgrade because, while not requiring Serbia's explicit recognition of Kosovo's sovereignty, that is what Germany is demanding in essence. In the minds of the general Serbian public, dismantling the parallel administrative structures is tantamount to relinquishing sovereignty. As Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic pointed out, "The request is something that Serbian authorities absolutely cannot accept at the moment."
The Croatia Model and Serbian Elections
For its part, the European Union is hoping that the successful conclusion of Croatia's accession negotiations June 30 will serve as a blueprint to be followed by other Balkan countries. Over the past decade, Croatia has pursued reforms — often unpopular at home — in order to meet the EU-mandated criteria in Zagreb's accession plan. Croatia is now expected to join the European Union as its 28th member in 2013. Europe's eyes now are set on Serbia, the regional heavyweight. Before leaving Croatia to travel to Serbia, Merkel said her message to Belgrade would be to look to the success of Croatia as a model for its own development. The issue for Serbia, however, is not simply whether Belgrade has the ability to follow in Zagreb's footsteps. The new conditions that Merkel laid down will require that Serbia first come to a national consensus that membership in the European Union is worth the contentious reforms it will require. With Tadic's pro-EU administration steadily losing public support to the nationalist opposition ahead of parliamentary elections slated for next year, Kosovo is a pivotal domestic issue in which Serbian politicians have little ability maneuver. The status of Kosovo is an issue of fundamental importance to the Serbian public and will be the decisive matter in determining the outcome of the parliamentary elections. Any concession or change in national policy regarding Kosovo is not something that can occur with any political legitimacy before elections are held, thus making any decision on Serbia's candidacy status unlikely to come before the end of 2011 as Belgrade had hoped. Unfortunately for Belgrade, with Croatia squarely in the European Union's corner, Brussels' need to co-opt Serbia becomes less critical. Whether Serbia chooses to pursue inclusion in Western institutions or not, it is now surrounded on all sides by EU member countries, candidate countries or potential candidate countries, severely limiting its ability to cause problems that could extend much beyond its immediate region. With the frameworks that have been set in place, the Europeans are confident that any threats from a potentially radicalized Serbia could be contained. At present, the European Union is feeling little pressure to incorporate a problematic Serbia for the sake of its own geopolitical security, meaning that, should Belgrade choose EU membership, the path to Brussels will not be an easy one.