Despite many assertions that it would never happen, the much-discussed deal between the European Union and Serbia to fast-track its membership in the union has come to pass. Yesterday the EU signed a pre-membership pact with Belgrade that would enhance trade and cooperation and speed the process by which Serbia could eventually join the union.
The timing of the agreement is no accident. The deal was rushed through in Brussels ahead of a new round of elections happening in Serbia in two weeks. The EU is desperate to avoid a defeat of the pro-Western party by the Nationalist party, and the agreement is meant to be a signal to Serbian voters that if the country cooperates, it will be rewarded with EU membership.
Serbia today is town between adopting a pro-EU path or spurning the union and aligning itself with Moscow. The presidential election in February saw the moderate pro-EU candidate Boris Tadic narrowly defeat his nationalist, pro-Moscow rival Tomislav Nikolic. But the president is a largely symbolic post, and the real test will be in the general election on May 11, when the country will decide which bloc it wants to put in power.
But Serbia’s entry into the EU is mired in controversy, both because it as refused to fully cooperate with the war crimes tribunal in the Hague prosecuting acts committed during the Yugoslav civil war and because it refuses to recognize the breakaway republic of Kosovo, which declared its independence last month. There have been intense internal divisions over whether or not to offer Serbia a fast-track deal in order to convince its citizens to put the pro-Western moderates in power. In fact this final agreement was only possible as a compromise. The agreement contains a caveat that says Belgrade will not receive the benefits from the trade and assistance agreement until it fully cooperates with the war crimes tribunal.
This agreement clearly frames what the May 11th election will be all about: Serbia must at last make a choice. Whatever the country decides there is a good chance there will be no turning back. If the country votes the moderates in, Serbia will most likely join the EU within the next eight years. If they elect the nationalists, Serbia will become isolated from its neighbors and pursue a foreign policy aligned with Russia, becoming a rogue state within EU borders. The future of the Balkans is at stake. This is certainly what the UK’s Europe Minister Jim Murphy meant when he said after the signing ceremony yesterday in Luxembourg, "Every member of the EU has invited them to join this organization. They have a choice to make whether they want to be part of a European future."