The European Union (EU) is perhaps the central issue on which the dominant political discourse in Serbia has focused during the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium. The EU was one of the main sites where the two dominant political positions collided – the ‘first’ and ‘second’ Serbia, nationalist and liberal. With the rise of the Serbian Progressive Party to power in 2012, this division has lost some of its intensity.

Former members of the Serbian Radical Party, ultra-nationalists and opponents of the European integration process, changed their political stance and in 2008 established the Serbian Progressive Party. In doing so became moderate conservatives who were quite enthusiastic when it comes to the EU. This change reshaped the local political sphere and dramatically diminished the presence of Euroscepticism.

How did this‌ ‌change happen? The answer to this question lies in the concept of ‘European values’, a phrase that floats through much political discourse as an empty signifier in which many things can be inscribed.

The EU as a legitimising framework for neoliberal politics

For local politicians, the term ‘European values’ mainly implies characteristics of the capitalist mode of production and related social reproduction. The practical expression of this is found in the privatisation, liberalization, and labour market flexibility agendas of every single Serbian government from 2000 until today. On the other hand, research shows that for the bulk of the population, ‘European values’ has a set of different meanings. For these sections of Serbian society, these values primarily imply something that could be broadly defined as a ‘better life’. Prosperity, higher living standards, and more job opportunities are most commonly cited in opinion polls as major positive aspects of EU accession. At the same time, a significant number of respondents would like to have more information on the economic consequences of the European integration process, and what it means for the standard of living enjoyed by ‘ordinary people’ in the EU.

We could argue that local politicians depoliticise the issue of European integration, with pro-EU parties reducing the process of accession to technical aspects and in doing so normalising a neoliberal course of action. In response Eurosceptic politicians and parties are addressing accession from cultural-nationalist positions, questioning the survival of a ‘Serbian national identity’ if Serbia joins the EU. Meanwhile sections of the population have begun to rethink what joining the EU actually means and how will it affect everyday life. With the crisis that ensued in 2008, it became more than obvious that even rich countries are prone to economic disasters. And yet, joining the EU does not guarantee that Serbia will leave the periphery of the world capitalist system. The crisis has also shown that there is no genuine equality among EU member states – neither economic nor political.

The current Government of the Republic of Serbia has progressed with very sharp neoliberal reforms, often under the pretext of ‘European integration’. New labour laws that could be defined as extremely neoliberal were introduced in 2014 under the pretext that it they aligned with ‘modern’ and ‘European’ norms, although critics have repeatedly shown that these forms of flexible labour legislation are not characteristic for a large number of EU countries and that many articles of the adopted laws are against international conventions. Similar things happened with media law, which encouraged the state’s withdrawal from the media sphere and leave it to private companies – beside two public media platforms, Radio television Serbia and Radio television Vojvodina, all other regional and local media platforms that used to be in public property had to be privatized. The result was that that many media companies were shut down since they were not privatized and about 1.000 media workers were left without a job. This was also justified in ‘European’ terms, with the discourse that was based on the premise that it is how things are being done in a modern world, we have to get rid of the relicts of socialist past. There are many examples of this practice. Narratives of ‘European’ modernisation and progress have the function of pacifying further debate about how legal regulations will actually influence the everyday living of common people and, ultimately, what kind of society we really need to build.

The effects of the EU integration process

To be honest, it’s not as if politicians don’t care about the standards of living and the material conditions of the people – at least in their rhetoric. When Serbia opened up its domestic market for imports of goods from the EU, the argument often made was that the benefits of a duty-free exchange regime would be most beneficial to consumers, as cheaper foreign products and greater competition would lead to lower retail prices. Yet, how can we buy those products if open access to local markets further destroys the already fragile fragments of Serbia’s productive capacities resulting in depressed living standards?

Import liberalisation began shortly after the fall of Milošević and the international sanctions against Yugoslavia started to be withdrawn. Imports with no substantial restrictions, along with a relatively overvalued local currency, made it possible for more competitive foreign goods to flood the domestic market. Adding privatisation into this equation, the ground for the further collapse of Serbia’s productive capacities was firmly established. The continuation of import liberalisation through the implementation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the EU and Serbia did not bring many benefits to the advancement of the domestic economy.

Meat production has been particularly affected by the lifting of import restrictions. Much cheaper meat from the EU flooded the domestic market. First, there are products from countries that allow the use of genetically modified soybean meal for animal nutrition. Since this is not allowed in Serbia, meat production requires more investment and therefore the final product is more expensive. In addition, in the context of EU sanctions against Russia, the European market was laden with meat that needs to be sold. This led to a fall in its price. Agricultural products such as potatoes provide another illustrative example. The market in Serbia was flooded with cheap potatoes from the EU, with the result that domestic producers had large stocks that could not be sold. One of the solutions for local producers was to try to export their products to the Russian market because Serbia did not introduce sanctions against Russia. However, the price of potatoes is quite low, and earnings from their export are not enough to cover more than the high cost of shipping to Russia.

Of course, liberalisation had the effects that went the other way, opening up access to a huge market of the EU for Serbian producers. But the big question is how well they are able to successfully match the already existing offer on the EU market. It should be remembered that Serbia’s productive capacities have been continuously dismantled over the last three decades. Since the fall of socialism Serbia’s economy suffered UN sanctions that devastated production capacities, while NATO bombing in 1999 destroyed many factories and large portion of infrastructure making recovery even harder. Throwing such fragile economy into the fire of free market with abolished customs protection haven’t produced many positive effects.

The Russian alternative?

As an alternative to the politics of EU integration, some Eurosceptics have proposed a change in course towards Russia and ‘Eurasian integration’. They claim that Serbia is culturally and historically closer to Russia. Of course, it goes beyond the fact that capitalist relations are not based on culture but on basic economic interests. This is more than obvious when we take a look at the privatisation of the national oil industry. Russia’s Gazprom acquired the majority stake of this company by paying just half of the estimated value. Also, the conditions attached to the export of Serbian manufactured FIAT cars to the Russian market, where they are matched with the reciprocal imports of Russian vehicles into the Serbian market, once again shows that ‘soul connection’ so often emphasised by local nationalists and Russophiles also has its price.

But what attitude does the population of Serbia have towards the EU and Russia? Let’s say that it is very ambivalent. Survey done in 2014 showed that only one-third of the population has a positive attitude towards the EU, whilst 40 percent hold a negative attitude. Attitudes toward Russia are somewhat different – 52 percent rate it positively and only 17 percent negatively. However, when asked where they would like their children to live, only 23 percent opted for Russia, while 70 percent of those polled favoured the EU. Although only 24 percent said they were informed about the EU accession process, more than half of those polled (54 percent) would vote in favour of joining the EU, whereas only 25 percent would be against it. Attitudes towards the EU have not changed dramatically over the course of time. However, it is indicative that in 2009, support for Serbia’s accession to the Union was as high as 71%.

Recent research that measured the views of the youth population shows that younger generations have more negative attitude towards the EU. For example, only 25 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 30 expressed the opinion that joining the EU would improve the quality of life in Serbia, while a total of 56 percent said that nothing would change (33 percent) or that things would be even worse (23 percent).

This ambivalence may be due to the wrong questions being asked. The dilemma should not be one of choosing which power we are the periphery of. This setting fits perfectly into a political monism that does not question the basics of production, but rather emphasises the cultural patterns embodied in idealised representations of the East and the West. Therefore, it is necessary to redefine and politicise the context. This could be done by introducing the dilemma that politicians tend to neglect as it has been resolved long ago – are you in favour of capitalism at all?

Originally published on 23 August 2019 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.