The post has originally been published on EUobserver.
Author is Sonja Licht, President of the Foundation BFPE for a Responsible Society.
I still recall the joy when on 1 March, 2012, Serbia was granted candidate status for the EU.
Immediately after the decision of the EU leaders, the European Integration Council of Serbia organised an extraordinary session celebrating this landmark moment.
The EU’s flag flew next to the national one at the parliament and outside government buildings. The path toward European integration was finally open.
It took more than 11 years after the end of the Milošević regime and the arrival of the first democratic, pro-European government, led by Zoran Djindjić, to reach that point, and it would take another 3 years until the accession process would actually get underway.
But the accession process has bogged down.
The most crucial chapters for the democratic reforms of the country (23 and 24) are still far from being opened, as is also the case with Chapter 31 on alignment with EU’s foreign and security policies.
Our European dream also has been seriously endangered by geopolitical tensions, and Russian aggression against Ukraine has complicated matters further.
Those of us who are confident that a European, democratic Serbia is still the best option for both have tried to convince our interlocutors that European integration should not remain a permanently moving target — but a real chance.
Without the prospect of accession, there might be further geopolitical shifts in our region that would further deepen the gap between pro- and anti-Europeans in Serbia generating further regional instability.
We’re often told we’re wrong to advocate for European integration by issuing warnings that — without the prospect of EU membership — there’s an increased chance of instability in the immediate neighbourhood.
But our warnings have often proven correct.
It also must be said that Serbians respond positively to Europe whenever there is strong EU support for Serbia, for example, with visa liberalisation, with Serbian candidate status, and with Serbian involvement in managing migration via the Balkan route.
When, on the other hand, the EU is absent, like at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, Russia and China have stepped in with shipments of masks and vaccines, in a form of pandemic diplomacy.
The gap widens with Europe when Russia and China take the lead in backing Serbian territorial integrity and when China is seen bringing big new investment.
To be sure the EU and its member states remain the most important economic and political partners of Serbia and the Western Balkans.
But every time the EU and its member states rebuff accession, as was the case for Albania and Northern Macedonia in 2019, Serbians lose some of their faith in the accession process, too.
True, Serbia didn’t join the sanctions against Russia for its war of aggression in Ukraine, and we understand how that was seen in Brussels and other capitals.
Yet Serbia also offered support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and Serbia also voted in favour of the resolution of the UN General Assembly that condemned the Russian invasion.
There are still close to 50 percent of Serbian citizens who believe that Serbia should evolve democratically, with rule of law, full respect for human and minority rights and free media, within the European family.
EU membership is the only dream commonly shared among the countries of the Western Balkans.
That dream remains the best way forwards for regional cooperation and for overcoming mutual mistrust, bilateral tensions, and conflicts.