As a shadow rapporteur for Serbia since 2014, I have been travelling frequently to its capital, Belgrade, and other towns in the past four years.
I have met many Serbians, not only state offcials and politicians, but also journalists, NGO representatives, activists, students, academics and artists. It was reassuring to see that Serbs are warm, welcoming and friendly people, proud, humorous, communicative and open.
I was once again convinced about their love for traditional Serbian food, spirits such as rakija and popular folk music, including trumpeters and Balkan brass.
Another thing I learned is that March is a particularly important month in the modern history of Serbia.
On 24 March, the country marked the 19th anniversary of the Nato bombings, which came as a result of failed Rambouillet peace talks between what was then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under Slobodan Miloševic and Kosovo Albanian representatives.
On 12 March, every year since 2003 , people have gathered to commemorate the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, Serbia’s first democratic prime minister. For the past 15 years, citizens have held a ‘Walk for Zoran’ through the centre of Belgrade, laying flowers in front of the government building where he was shot, and at his grave. Every 12 March, they mourn his death and remember the hope he brought to the country with his dream of a ‘European Serbia’.
Although Zoran is dead, his dream of a ‘European Serbia’ is still very much alive. It is also now much more than a dream: It is becoming a reality, as Serbia opened negotiations with the EU in January 2014.
Until today, 12 chapters have been opened and two chapters (science and research and education and culture) have been provisionally closed.
As in Serbia’s neighbouring countries, chapters 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights) and 24 (justice, freedom and security) are the biggest challenge. Throughout the region, democracy and the rule of law need to be strengthened, organised crime needs to be fought and corruption rooted out.
But the toughest nut to crack in Serbia’s case is hidden within chapter 35 (‘other issues’): normalisation of relations with Kosovo. Not only is Brussels constantly reminding Serbian leaders that it is a Kosovo deal that will secure them progress on the EU path, it is also facilitating talks between the sides.
At the last meeting within the framework of the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Priština, held on 23 March in Brussels, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini reminded the two leaders, Thaci and Vucic, how important it is to fully respect all existing agreements, including establishing of the Association of Serb majority municipalities, the energy agreement and completing of the Mitrovica Bridge.
But more important than ticking the boxes and ‘pleasing’ Brussels is finding a lasting solution for Kosovo’s ongoing problem. This is not about closing chapters in negotiations with the EU, nor about high politics.
It is primarily about the people who live there, all around Kosovo, that are fed up with politicians’ promises from both sides and who simply want to live a normal life without everyday tensions and conflicts.
Similarly, people in Serbia want to live in a ‘European Serbia’. They want the rule of law to run their society, journalists want more freedom of expression and less self-censorship, students want more opportunities and better education and young people want more and better-paid jobs in their motherland.
They want the massive brain drain to end, they demand dialogue with authorities and expect their leaders to work for change for the sake of a brighter future for Serbia, not for fulfilling the conditions which the EU has set.
I believe this is all possible with strategic, inclusive, well-designed and honest communication on different levels.
First, the Union must find ways to communicate better, not only with Serbian leaders, but also with Serbian civil society, including them in the entire process and playing a transformative role.
Second, Serbian leaders should listen more carefully to what its active and dynamic civil society has to say. The EU integration is their process, it should not be in the hands of political elites.
Third, the Union should be more active in communicating with its own audience, the citizens of the member states. The EU is a citizens’ Union, and citizens should have a say on future members of their European family.
With improved communication at all levels and a fi rm, genuine commitment from Serbian leaders to completing reforms, I see a ‘European Serbia’ becoming part of the ‘European family’. I see the dream of ‘European Serbia’ finally coming true.