You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Accept Serbia

Why the European Union can’t afford to exclude the Balkan state indefinitely.

In the aftermath of the arrest of Ratko Mladic, all eyes are now on Serbia’s application for European Union membership (see, for example here, here, and here). After all, the arrest of Mladic, whom Time described as “Europe’s most wanted war-crimes suspect”, was supposed to be the major remaining obstacle to Serbia joining the EU. Even Catherine Ashton, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, who was on her way to Belgrade to meet with Serbian President Boris Tadic when the news of Mladic’s arrest broke, wrote that there was an important “link between Tadic’s wish to take Serbia into the European Union and his insistence on removing the stain of how Serbia’s rulers behaved in the 90s.” With Mladic behind bars, Serbia, it seems, is ready to follow Croatia into the EU.

Or does it? After all, this is hardly a shining moment for the EU. For starters, the body currently faces a serious challenge to the successful implementation of its most ambitious policy: the single currency project embodied in the euro. Ireland, Portugal, and Greece have all required financial bailouts, and rumors persist that Greece may still default on its debts and possible even leave the euro-zone. More generally, it it has been claimed that expansion fatigue has set in, and, in particular, there are lingering concerns that Bulgaria and Romania were admitted to the EU too early. Furthermore Serbian membership will force the EU to confront the thorny issue of Kosovo, which has declared independence from Serbia and been recognized by many foreign countries, but not by the government in Belgrade.

In other words, Serbia’s EU dream may be farther off than many people think. For example, an op-ed in The Australian said Mladic’s arrest is “raising false membership hopes” for Serbia, and The Economist has noted that, “for Europe’s politicians, whose voters do not much like the idea of further expansion, Serbia’s failure to catch Ratko Mladic was convenient. With the country’s most egregious suspected war criminal at liberty, the European Union had a plausible reason to prevaricate about admitting it.”

Yet it is crucial that the EU resist the temptation to put off Serbian membership indefinitely. As the Arab Spring reminds us, democratization is a fragile process fraught with a myriad of pitfalls and unlimited ways for the process to be derailed. As I have previously argued in The New Republic, the presence of the EU has been one of the most important factors in the democratization of East-Central Europe, including the Balkans. The body provides countries with direct assistance for democratic development, which is surely important. But, even more critically, it pushes progressive reform by dangling the carrot of EU membership in front of states, but saying it can’t be attained before certain democratic criteria are met.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the former Yugoslavia, where, despite the violence and devastation unleashed by the wars that accompanied the breakup of that country, all of the successor states continue to be committed to democratic development. Absent the EU, we have no idea whether this would have happened. Now, with Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and (non-former Yugoslav) Albania still eagerly waiting in line behind Serbia, it is not the time to find out what might happen in the Balkans if EU membership is no longer seen as a possibility.

While we were never able to observe what would have happened to the countries of East-Central Europe without the presence of the EU, we have seen what’s happened in the former Soviet Union, where, to date, none of the successor states have been invited to join the EU, save the Baltic republics. In the post-Soviet states, the record of even partial democratic consolidation is at best much weaker and at worse non-existent—for instance, in some Central Asian states, which are far from the EU’s borders, and in the Caucasus. While there are of course a myriad of differences between East-Central Europe and the former Soviet Republics, it is impossible to deny that the lure of EU membership for the former as opposed to the latter has key in relative democratic growth. Indeed, Professor Milada Vachudova of the University of North Carolina has argued that the EU may have become the most effective, inadvertent democracy promotion organization the world has ever known.

In the mid-1990s, authoritarian regimes in the former Yugoslavia presented Europe with its worst violence since World War II. While, on the one hand, this shows the limits of the EU in encouraging democratization—indeed, it took some years for the lure of membership to take hold in the Balkans—it also points to the importance of taking steps to lock in progress that has been made in recent years in the region. One of the few iron rules of international relations is that democracies are much less likely to go to war with other democracies. Just as the original idea for the EU lay in tying a democratic (West) Germany to the rest of Europe to avoid a rerun of World War II, firmly anchoring a democratic Serbia and, eventually, the remaining Balkan states within the EU offers Europe the best chance of avoiding a revival of the conflicts of the 1990s. The long-term costs of indefinitely excluding Serbia from the EU have the potential to be very high.

Joshua A. Tucker is a professor of politics at New York University, a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a co-author of the political science and policy blog The Monkey Cage.

Follow @tnr on Twitter.