Serbia's pride march ban casts shadow over EU accession process

For the third year in a row, the Serbian government has banned Belgrade's pride march, citing "serious threats to the peace and public order", write Jelko Kacin and Marije Cornelissen.

Despite the constitutional right to peaceful assembly, a special government body composed of police and intelligence services officials has prohibited the pride march.

According to enlargement and European neighbourhood policy commissioner Štefan Füle, this is a "missed opportunity to show respect for fundamental rights". Indeed, it shows Serbia faces an uphill struggle to meet such criteria during its accession negotiations.

This ban highlights two of Serbia's fundamental problems which it must address if negotiations are to run smoothly. First, there is a clear lack of respect for the rule of law if a group of hooligans - however large - manages to impose its political agenda on authorities.

The latter have the obligation of guaranteeing citizens' freedom of assembly and provide adequate protection against violence. Without addressing the problem of violent hooligan groups, and as long as police and judiciary authorities cannot stand up to them, there will be no genuine rule of law in Serbia.

Second, the ban shows Serbian politicians' own homophobia. Only three days before the ban was announced, Serbian prime minister Ivica Dacic expressed the view that homosexuality was "not normal and natural" when asked about the possibility of holding this year's pride march. This shows a blatant lack of respect for the dignity of LGBT persons, and the EU is founded on the very principle that the dignity of all must be protected.

"Despite the official ban, LGBT organisations spontaneously organised an ad hoc march - a 'midnight pride'"

Despite the official ban, LGBT organisations spontaneously organised an ad hoc march - a 'midnight pride'. About 250 participants walked safely from the government building to the national assembly in Belgrade in the presence of substantially increased police forces in the city centre.

However, this should not dilute from the withdrawal of government support for the officially scheduled daylight pride, which indicates the lack of commitment to reforms. The Serbian government prefers staging a national security crisis over leading the nation towards needed improvements of the country's human rights situation.

For those of us wishing to promote and encourage Serbia's EU membership, the government's decision is terribly unhelpful. This ban comes at a particularly sensitive time, as Serbia hopes EU leaders decide to open accession negotiations before the end of this year.

The initial screening of the negotiations' chapter 23 on judiciary and fundamental rights started only last week. This is clearly a lost opportunity for Serbian leaders to send a strong positive message about their commitment to reforms and the rule of law.