Feb 20, 2024

Serbia Has Crossed the EU’s Rubicon; Germany and Its Allies Must Respond

ALEKSANDAR VUCIC, president of Serbia
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How Serbia’s recent elections were conducted further disqualifies the country from future EU membership and undermines the credibility of revived EU enlargement. Ahead of the new EU policy cycle in Brussels, Germany needs to prepare a plan B toward Belgrade.


On December 17, 2023, Serbia held snap parliamentary elections for the third time in less than four years. They were combined with early local elections in part of the country. This was done to prevent the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) from losing power in key cities, including the capital Belgrade. The heavy involvement of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in the campaign made it more likely that SNS would prevail than if these elections had been held separately and without his support. Indeed, the official results on the national level brought SNS a victory that was larger than expected.

Based on the preliminary findings of the OSCE/ODHIR international election observation mission and local observers, there was evidence of unprecedented manipulation and voter fraud, most notably in Belgrade. Amid street protests and hunger strikes, Serbia’s democratic opposition has called for new elections and more international pressure on President Vučić, especially from EU institutions and key member states. However, the European Commission has been hesitant to clarify its position beyond a statement on December 19 that urges Serbian authorities to address credible reports of irregularities in a transparent manner.

In contrast, the European Parliament passed a critical resolution on February 8 – after initial disputes among the main political groups – that calls for “an independent, international investigation by respected international legal experts and institutions” into the election proceedings, with special attention paid to the Belgrade Municipal Assembly. Adopted by a large majority, the resolution also urges the Commission to send its own expert mission to Serbia to assess the post-election situation and address systemic rule of law issues. It calls for a suspension of EU funding if the authorities fail to implement the OSCE/ODIHR election recommendations. In reaction, Vučić started a campaign against Serbia’s EU membership using state-controlled media. 

Defending the Rule of Law in Europe

This recent example of election fraud is no isolated incident in Serbia. International observers noted similar irregularities during national elections held in the last decade. Ahead of the 2020 elections largely boycotted by the opposition, an inter-party dialogue was initiated by the European Parliament that issued a clear statement and recommendations. However, the EU did not sanction Belgrade’s repeated non-compliance, and the issues not only persisted but also led to manipulation of the electoral process on an even greater scale in late 2023. 

President Vučić uses frequent snap elections, which keep Serbia in eternal campaign mode and have earned it the label of “electoral autocracy,” as one of his power tactics. This time, however, the opposition parties managed to form an unusually strong alliance called “Serbia Against Violence.” This alliance was forged from several months of mass protests following tragic shootings in May 2023 in Belgrade and near Mladenovac that were blamed on a culture of violence upheld by the Vučić-controlled media and the ruling elite. Pre-election polls showed the opposition coalition within reach of a majority in the Belgrade Municipal Assembly, which explains the massive vote rigging in the capital. According to the official electoral commission, the ruling SNS won 49 of the 110 seats there, while Serbia Against Violence took 42. An appeal to the constitutional court by the opposition to annul the official results has little chance of success. 

While the German Federal Foreign Office condemned the election fraud as “unacceptable for a country with EU candidate status,” no policy action followed. According to diplomatic sources in Berlin, Germany did not find sufficient support among EU member states for punitive measures. President Vučić reacted with harsh criticism of Germany, especially for allegedly interfering in the electoral process. Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić thanked Russian intelligence for warnings of violent protests supported by the West. 

Vučić Does not Guarantee Stability

Since Aleksandar Vučić came to power in 2012, the erosion of institutions that were only just democratizing has picked up pace. Serbia’s media landscape has been largely captured by the state, and its judiciary has been corrupted. SNS controls the entire country. Personal ties link the president to organized crime groups and well-coordinated hooligans prone to violence. Public discourse is marked by vicious rhetoric that has an especially detrimental effect on young people, raising warnings of a “Lost Generation.” Having established himself as a firm regional “stabilocrat” and power broker, Vučić has increasingly taken to open acts of defiance toward Serbia’s European partners, such as shaking hands with Putin and signing trade deals with China in Beijing while the other Western Balkan leaders traveled to Tirana for the Berlin Process Summit. 

Instead of tackling domestic reforms, Vučić’s administration employs ethno-national rhetoric and victimizing narratives, creating a social environment of fear, hopelessness, and anger in which citizens become easy prey for populist manipulation. The Serbian government has long become a destabilizing factor for the entire region, no longer curbing Republika Srpska’s secessionist drive in Bosnia-Herzegovina, repeated military threats on Kosovo’s border, and spreading pro-Russian disinformation throughout the region. Ignoring Serbia’s alarming actions and anti-EU rhetoric only serves to legitimize it and sets an adverse precedent that is in direct opposition to the EU’s goals of stability and democratic transformation in the Western Balkans.

Time for Brussels and Berlin to Prepare a Plan B on Serbia 

As evidence shows, the tactics currently used by the EU and its partners to gently pull Serbia away from Russia have failed. Therefore, they must now move from empty threats to consistent action. Both Serbia and the EU are, at least officially, still committed to the country’s EU integration, and the enlargement process gives the EU leverage to make demands through both diplomatic and financial means. Given internal EU divisions over sanctioning Serbia – with Hungary, Austria, and several other member states being openly against it – Germany should explore bilateral actions with like-minded partners, particularly within the Quint, a format that brings together Germany, France, the United States, Italy, and the United Kingdom. A tangible starting point would be to support local demands for the annulment of the Belgrade elections in line with the European Parliament’s resolution.

It is increasingly hard to imagine any progress with Serbia under the current methodology of the EU accession talks that link advancements in the negotiations with those related to the rule of law and fundamental rights. Given the Serbian government’s track record of democratic backsliding and openly siding with Russia, even suspending EU accession negotiations should no longer be a taboo if key conditions are not fulfilled. Given the mass mobilization of pro-democratic forces in Serbia, this may result in a watershed moment for democracy there. The EU has unique means and a vested interest in being a credible partner in the process of dismantling the state capture in Serbia.

An example of a successful EU intervention in somewhat similar circumstances can be found in Serbia’s immediate neighborhood. When the authoritarian former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was subject to massive protests in 2015 following a wiretapping scandal, it was ultimately the support of the EU that brought about the decisive change. The fact that Gruevski is now living in Hungary as a political refugee evading corruption charges illustrates the challenge of a common European response in the face of anti-democratic alliances between Budapest and Belgrade. Yet it also underlines the urgency of addressing these harmful developments with more substantive means. 

A shift toward the Far Right is expected from European Parliament elections this June, and a second Trump Presidency looks increasingly likely after US elections this November. As both would expand President Vučić’s room for maneuver toward Brussels and key European partners, he will likely be playing for time. These prospects make it essential for Germany to take a firm stance on democratic standards in the EU accession process now. 

In fact, the EU’s current internal dynamics could benefit from a new strategic approach toward Serbia. With the rule of law taking center stage during Belgium’s current presidency of the Council of the European Union, and the increasing isolation of Vučić’s key ally Viktor Orbán, a new determination to fight democratic backsliding is emerging. Moreover, the principle is at the heart of unfolding debates on the EU’s internal reform and enlargement, both of which are expected to be core topics for the next European Commission.

Bibliographic data

Seebass, Frauke . “Serbia Has Crossed the EU’s Rubicon; Germany and Its Allies Must Respond.” German Council on Foreign Relations. February 2024.

This DGAP Memo Nr. 2 was published on February 20, 2024. 
ISSN 749-5542

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