Looking back at 16 years of Angela Merkel's Balkan policy, there were ups and downs, but the objective of eventually bringing Serbia closer to the EU has failed. It is now high time for a fresh, new start to Germany‘s relationship to the key enabler or blocker of a European future for the region - Serbia.
The announcement that German chancellor Angela Merkel would be visiting Belgrade in one of her last foreign visits in this capacity came as a surprise. Does she want to reward her friend and EPP party colleague Aleksandar Vučić? Or perhaps use this last visit to send a critical message regarding future relations, to pave the way for her successor? We will know more on Monday. But the choice of her destinations, Belgrade and Tirana, does not give reason for much hope: had she wanted to send a message of support to reform-oriented forces in the Western Balkan Six, she would have gone to Skopje and Pristina instead.
No doubt about it: with Angela Merkel leaving office this autumn, an era not only of German politics but also of European Balkan politics will end. In the 16 years of her tenure, one can identify different phases and strategies guiding the Chancellor‘s Balkan policy, marked by her Belgrade visits. On her first visit in 2011, her withdrawal of support for then President Tadić coincided with him being voted out a few months later. The patience with the Democratic Party’s rollback and failure to deliver on EU-oriented reforms and open accession negotiations had come to an end. Her 2015 visit symbolized her strong support for then President Nikolić and Prime Minister Vučić’s commitment to EU accession, with accession negotiations having started in early 2014, and a revitalized process on normalizing relations with Kosovo through the Brussels Agreement launched the same year.
From then on, the belief in Berlin was: if anybody, it is the former nationalist Vučić who can convince the Serbian population to compromise on Kosovo. And the deal was: in exchange for progress on the Kosovo question, the EU would turn a blind eye to the lack of progress in the fields of democratization and rule of law. This approach failed, and should have been revisited at the latest in 2018, when it became clear how little Vučić was willing to discuss the Kosovo issue, exemplified by a poorly organized internal dialogue. But Merkel never changed that last strategy - hence, the last phase of her Serbia policy has dragged on until today, to the detriment of both Serbian democracy and the EU’s standing.
Since Merkel’s last visit in 2015 – not a single major reform in the fundamentals
Today, the situation looks bleak: Serbia’s standing has been downgraded by all international indices with regards to democracy, rule of law and media freedoms, the EU progress reports have never been so vocal on shortcomings, and no accession chapter has been opened or closed since December 2019. Political pluralism in Serbia has vanished entirely since the last parliamentary elections in June 2020, with the government coalition now holding a majority of 93% of seats in the Serbian National Assembly; the judiciary, media, and supposedly independent institutions have all been captured by SNS party loyalists of President Vučić. According to a survey by the Westminster Foundation, 65% of young people are actively thinking about leaving the country.
With that being said, one fact is particularly discomforting for the political balance sheet of the German chancellor: since her last visit in 2015, not a single major reform in the so-called ‘fundamentals’, Chapters 23 and 24 dealing with the judiciary, fundamental rights and freedoms, has been implemented by the Serbian government. This raises a key question - is there anyone today who still seriously believes that Aleksandar Vučić is a changed man who has learned from his mistakes as a Secretary-General of the Serbian Radical Party, and who wants to forge a compromise on Kosovo and lead Serbia into the European Union? One need only listen to any of his speeches (in Serbian) on the occasion of annual war-time commemorations to be assured otherwise. To still believe anything else would be naïve at best or cause willful damage to the European project at worst.
Economic strategy succeeded – political one failed
All in all, like so often in Merkel‘s foreign policy, the economic strategy has succeeded, while the political one failed. In recent years, German companies invested around €3 billion in Serbia, creating more than 65,000 jobs, which is evidence of how attractive Serbia has become, especially for supplier companies of the German car industry. But this state of affairs seems unsustainable in the long run, given that German companies enjoy extensive preferential treatment and access but require legal certainty and rule of law beyond governments. They also rely on an environment that keeps qualified workers in the country instead of seeing them migrate to EU countries, to Germany especially.
But let us take a step back and admit that Mrs. Merkel’s job isn’t the easiest: How do you keep up the pressure for reforms while engaging in a good relationship? Unlike in 2011, Serbia today lacks real political alternatives; the unresolved migration question in Europe and significance of the Balkan route exert additional realpolitik pressure, while Merkel’s closest European partner, French President Macron, has his own ideas on enlargement. The biggest political problem, which she herself is responsible for, is that Merkel never had credible leverage over Vučić, because of their close EPP connection. The Serbian President has been adept at exhausting all the possibilities afforded to him by being Merkel’s man in the Balkans, dismantling institutions and perpetually postponing reforms to tomorrow.
What can we hope for in the future? First of all, that the German Chancellor uses this visit for more than saying goodbye to a friend, but sending a clear message for the future, because one thing seems clear: Germany‘s Balkan policy cannot just continue as it is. For it to be more effective, it needs less complicity and more critical engagement. The next German Chancellor or Foreign Minister would be well-advised to return to a values-based foreign policy. A realpolitik, pragmatic approach is understandable given the framework conditions, but the Western Balkans are Europe, and the integration process is supposed to harmonize legislation based on common values outlined in Article 2 of the EU treaty. This will not work with a political elite that still, 20 years after the war, denies genocide in Srebrenica and the role Belgrade and Milošević‘s regime played in advancing ethno-nationalist policies all over the region, leading to the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia. What we need for the 2021 visit is Merkel’s honesty to address problems shown during her 2011 visit.
European Green Deal and new environmental movements a hope for the future
With the European Green Deal, the EU has an attractive offer of a transformational vision for the future, backed up by sorely needed financing for the region. It could help liberalize Serbia’s energy market to unlock the potential for solar and wind power, and set up a subsidy scheme to replace small stoves in households, as was done in East Germany in the 1990s with KfW credits. Boosting regional trade in goods and electricity and strengthening special prosecutors on financial crime to combat corruption and organized crime, as well as extending the competence of the newly formed European Public Prosecutor's Office to Serbia’s EU funds are just some of the initial ideas that would give Serbia an impetus for modernization. All that is needed are political actors to take up these ideas and translate them into practical policies. The good news is, these actors are awakening, and a new way of doing politics after the Tadić-DS and Vučić-SNS era is possible and necessary, with a vibrant scene of bottom-up actors engaged in fighting for environmental causes and the rule of law brewing in all parts of Serbia. Apart from the purely intergovernmental level, these could be the new partners for the new faces in Berlin.
Arguably in part based on the idea that unpopular reforms could best be delivered in fields in which the governing coalition has traditional support from its constituents. Informed by the German experience of Agenda 2010, a controversial social policy reform program proposed by the Social Democrat/Green coalition led by Chancellor Schröder, the rationale was that Vučić would be better suited to compromise on Kosovo than a center-left coalition.