European Forum expert meeting in Belgrade

On Saturday 31 May the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and the European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity held an expert meeting about the legitimacy of the EU and increasing civil engagement in order to revitalize the EU enlargement process. Researchers, academics and political foundations met in the Serbian capital of Belgrade to discuss these topics as part of the research program ‘Enhancing democracy pre and post EU accession  - Citizens’ Europe’.

According to René Cuperus, researcher from the Dutch Wiardi Beckman Foundation, Belgrade is the ideal place for this expert meeting to be held. He said Serbia is the country where European enlargement and nationalism converge. He also remarked that the time was well chosen. The recently held European Parliamentary elections showed a large gain for anti-European parties. According to Cuperus recent EU enlargement has to be considered as a factor of the anti-European vote.

Ben Taylor and Dennis Preshove, both involved in the Young Academics Network of FEPS, started the expert meeting by discussing EU enlargement and Turkey and EU enlargement and Judicial reform in the Western Balkans. According to Ben Taylor the Parties of European Socialists (PES) should reinvigorate its relationship with Turkish Left and support a wide range of Social Democratic movements in Turkey. Dennis Preshove spoke about judicial reform in the Western Balkans. Stating that semi-independent judicial councils are an important tool for judicial reform.

Enhancing democracy pre and post EU accession – Citizens’ Europe

As part of the research program ‘Enhancing democracy pre and post EU accession – Citizens’ Europe’ four researchers presented their paper. Tamás Boros, director of Policy Solutions, presented his paper about the rise of euro-skepticism and the potential EU response. Boros analyzed euro-skeptics and stated that the ‘hard’ euro-skeptics, those opposed to the idea of the European Union, pose a danger to the EU as such. Although the amount of ‘hard’ euro-skeptic MEP’s seems to be rising, he could not find a correlation between the national gain of anti-European MEP’s and the national support for the anti-European camp. 

Gordan Georgiev, lecturer at the University of Skopje, talked about the crisis of representative democracy and Europe. According to Georgiev there is a pro-European majority at the European level and the anti-European movements are a problem of the national level. He argues that the anti-European sentiments should be tackled by the national governments. According to Georgiev national politicians fail to defend the European Union and national party politics undermines the legitimacy of the European Parliament. The anti-EU tide should therefore be tackled at the national level.

Daliborka Uljarević, director of the Center for Civic Education, analyzed the role of NGO’s in Montenegro. She stated that Montenegrins have a high trust in NGO’s and that the civil society plays a vital role in the Montenegrin political process. The reformist push by the country’s NGO’s is being enhanced by the prospect of EU accession. Civil society thus plays a vital role democratizing the Montenegrin government.

Corine Stratulat, policy analyst of the European Policy Center, argued that democracy building is at the hard of the EU engagement in the Balkans. Since the eastern enlargement, good governance has become an important addition to the Copenhagen criteria. According to Stratulat the formal democratic criteria are in place, but the informal democratic culture remains largely absent. Stratulat argues that civil society can have a profound influence in the democratizing process in the Balkans.    

Nationalism and democracy

In a reflection in the presented papers, Žarko Korać, the president of de Social Democratic Union (SDU) congratulated the participants on their thorough and wide-ranging research. Korać claimed that the crisis of the representative government and nationalism should both be well researched. He stated that the historical context is important in studying both problems. Serbia is an important case. According to Korać the pro-European Serbian camp is very strong, but the government remains authoritarian. The goals of the Serbian politics have changed but the means remained. Civil society alone cannot democratize Serbia, Europe alone can save Serbia.

According to dr. Aleksandar Sekulović, researcher for the Association of Anti-fascists in Serbia, aggressive, expansionist nationalism is still a problem in Serbia. He states that President Tomislav Nikolić and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić were allies of former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević. Sekulović argues that the current political elite has not changed since the fall of Milošević and that they remain committed to an authoritarian Serbia. Dr. Sekulović states that Serbian nationalism remains a danger to the entire Balkans. According to dr. Sekulović the national discourse and the political culture will have to change in order for Serbia to change. The best change of Serbia achieving this is accession to the EU.

At the closing statement René Cuperus stated that meetings like this are the spirit of European cooperation. He warned the participants not to generalize the European system and that different countries require different approaches to EU-integration. He fears that concepts of nationalism and populism are being abused by elitist to describe political sentiments among working class Europeans.  By discussing these problems the participants help built a strong social democratic Europe.    

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