As part of the program Regional Initiative to Combat Disinformation “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism”, we present you a new monthly analyses of fake news and disinformation narratives.
Anti-European narratives during the election campaign
The campaign for extraordinary parliamentary and local elections in Serbia officially lasted from the beginning of November to the middle of December 2023. Although foreign policy topics did not dominate the campaign of either the ruling parties or the pro-European opposition, the right-wing opposition parties emphasized them. They harshly criticized the European Union, rejecting the continuation of Serbia’s EU accession process and directly linking the so-called Franco-German plan with eventual membership of Serbia in the Union.
When the elections were announced at the end of October and the beginning of November, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, visited Belgrade. During the conversation with the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, she again emphasized the importance of implementing the Brussels and Ohrid Agreements between Serbia and Kosovo. The President of the Commission used the wording de facto recognition of Kosovo, which was more often present in the rhetoric of European officials in the recent period. However, its essential meaning is not specified and causes different interpretations. Some right-wing opposition parties also used this as an element on which the election campaign was based.
These events were the reason for the renewal of previously constructed narratives, in part of the right-wing and pro-Russian oriented public and media during November, about the unfair treatment of the European Union towards Serbia and the constant pressure that the EU can “still demonstrate only on Serbia.”
“The EU is unable to guarantee anything”
Among the series of texts and analyses that promote these narratives, those on the Srbin.info portal, which most frequently dealt with this topic, are particularly illustrative. Under the title “The European Union can only torture us,” Srbin.info reports the words of the interlocutors who indicate that the EU has become a second-rate power and cannot pursue its interests anywhere except in Serbia. It is added that “The European Union can only torture us… it is a perspectiveless organization… the European Union has nothing for the EU itself.”
It was also pointed out that the president of the Commission, on behalf of the EU, practically demanded the recognition of Kosovo as a form of humiliation for the state of Serbia, while the representatives of the Serbian authorities remained silent on the expressed demands of the European officials.
In a similar tone, the statement of the opposition politician and former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia, Vuk Jeremic, was reported, who pointed out that the EU offers an illusion in exchange for the recognition of Kosovo. It is emphasized that “the European Union asks Serbia actually to recognize Kosovo as an independent state, and in return offers it a temporary continuation of the illusion that it will become a member of the Union.” The text suggests that Serbia would not be admitted to the EU even in this case. Portal Srbin.info further writes, commenting on Jeremic’s statement, that Serbia should redefine its relations with the European Union.
The results of von der Leyen’s visit to Serbia are also interpreted in a given key by other nationalist and pro-Russian-oriented media. In the author’s text for the Nova Srpska politička misao, it is claimed that the negotiations with the EU must be terminated because it cannot guarantee anything (to Serbia). It is emphasized that “the EU has unequivocally proven that it is completely useless as a mediator in negotiations… or completely useless to Serbia, whose problems it has only increased for ten years.” guarantees nothing…European officials go public and demand new concessions from Serbia so that Pristina fulfils the obligations it has already (previously) committed to.”
On the Serbian-language portal of the Russian state-owned Sputnik, it is written that the French-German plan (for Kosovo) has become the new and only platform of the EU. The author suggests that “the EU has categorized Serbia among wild tribes… no rules apply to it, and that is why the Serbian leadership can be openly called upon to de facto recognize Kosovo.” An explicit message was also sent that the defence of freedom for Serbia becomes an uncompromising fight against the EU and that the Union irrevocably loses Serbia.
Another related narrative that was noticeable during November in the media in the Serbian language is that Serbia does not benefit enough from the process of accession to the European Union, i.e. the question was asked, “Why the European Union.” The analysis hinted that “Serbia did not receive any great benefit or any greater reputation due to the EU accession process” and that “the money that came from EU funds had a high social cost for Serbian society. Furthermore, it is implied that realistic and credible alternatives are emerging for Serbia about “Eurocentrism.”
The European Union is still Serbia’s most important partner
When it comes to the results of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina with the mediation of the European Union in the past 12 years, as long as the whole process has been going on, the fact is that they are limited and that a significant number of elements of the Agreement remained unimplemented. In addition to the responsibility of the Union, more complex international circumstances and activities of other actors, above all, the inactivity and lack of essential political will of the two parties – Serbian and Kosovar – contributed to this inability to implement the agreements fully.
Regarding the “new platform” for the continuation of the dialogue, part of the domestic media continues to wrongly label it as a Franco-German agreement since it was agreed upon at the EU level and has grown into the so-called European proposal for the Agreement on the path to the normalization of relations, which the two leaders – Aleksandar Vučić and Aljbin Kurti – accepted in Brussels in February 2023. A month later, the Annex to the Agreement was agreed in Ohrid, which contains the steps in implementation, and it was stated in that document that the criteria in Chapter 35 of Serbia’s negotiations with the EU will be changed in order to incorporate the implementation of the (Brussels-Ohrid) Agreement. Therefore, the actualized demands for the implementation of the Agreement do not represent any new EU demands or arbitrary concessions that are demanded from Serbia, as it was presented to the domestic public.
In addition, there are differences in the interpretations of the scope of the Brussels-Ohrid Agreement in the context of the eventual recognition of independence, with numerous experts suggesting that the current concept of de facto recognition mentioned by EU officials is highly controversial in international law and that it is mainly about adapted political discourse, which corresponds to the positions of Pristina, to facilitate concessions on that side, rather than a form of formal recognition of Kosovo.
On the other hand, the relations between Serbia and the European Union are indeed complex – the process of European integration has been going on for over two decades, with phases of ups and downs and current stagnation – but in this period several facts have remained constant. They illustrate the still dominant importance of the EU for Serbia. The European Union is Serbia’s absolute largest trading partner, with a share of over 60% in total trade. Also, companies from the European Union are the largest investors in Serbia since the share of European investments in foreign investments is over 65%. Finally, from 2000 until today, the European Union is the largest donor to Serbia, with a total of donated (non-reimbursable) funds amounting to over 3.5 billion euros.
Author: Igor Mirosavljević