by Marko Stojić, Metropolitan University Prague
In recent years, the Western Balkans has experienced a significant decline in democracy. This has been especially pronounced in Serbia, a country that is no longer perceived as a functioning democracy but rather categorized as a partly free ‘electoral autocracy’. At the same time, Serbia has made some strides in its pursuit of EU membership, leading many observers to argue that the EU has become complicit in the erosion of democracy, supporting rather than discouraging this concerning trend.
More strikingly, the European Parliament (EP) – known for its commitment to upholding the EU’s fundamental values – and some transnational parties have also shown a disregard for the democratic decline, both within and beyond the Union. This has been particularly evident within the European People’s Party (EPP) which consistently shielded its former member, the Hungarian Fidesz, until 2021. In an article recently published in the Journal of Common Market Studies, I contend that the EPP has similarly turned a blind eye to the undemocratic practices of its Serbian affiliate, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).
Namely, this transnational party did endorse progressively more critical EP resolutions on Serbia that, for instance, noted in 2023 that ‘the governing majority has steadily undermined some political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media, the political opposition and civil society organisations’. However, a closer examination of the amendments tabled by the EPP group and their frequent motions for separate votes to exclude disapproving articles paints a different picture. The leading European party consistently sought to moderate the content of these politically important – although not legally binding – documents, aiming to shield its Serbian affiliate from severe criticism in the EP. The article, therefore, reinforced scholarly arguments that EU actors have considerably contributed to the rise of ‘competitive authoritarianism’ in this region.
Protecting Serbia’s ruling party from criticism
The EPP frequently dismissed the arguments that there was a rollback of democracy in Serbia. It actively worked to remove from the 2021 EP resolution that ‘[The EP] regrets the lack of progress in many areas of Serbia’s reform agenda and the fact that there has even been backsliding on issues that are fundamental for EU accession’. The party vehemently contested articles that highlighted the role of the SNS in the erosion of democracy. For instance, it sought to eliminate references to ‘the ruling party’ from the article noting ‘monopolisation of the media landscape in the country by the ruling party’. Furthermore, the EPP opposed the inclusion of specific examples of high-level corruption, making unsuccessful attempts to vote down references to prominent and unsolved corruption cases involving senior SNS officials, such as ‘Krušik, Jovanjica, and Telekom Srbija’.
Likewise, the EPP’s narratives and official documents consistently overlooked the democratic decline. Party senior officials have rarely, if ever, publicly criticised the SNS for its illiberal practices. Instead, they emphasized Serbia’s readiness for changes and membership in the EU. While the 2021 EPP EU-Western Balkans declaration boasted that ‘we cannot compromise on values and rights’, it disregarded undemocratic tendencies in the countries governed by its affiliates. Its 2022 position paper on the Western Balkans thus praised the initiatives to ‘strengthen the independence and the efficacy of the judiciary’ and create ‘a better level playing field’ for the April 2022 election in Serbia. At the same time, it criticised the Socialist-led governments in Albania for democratic deterioration across three resolutions and called upon the EU to cross-check how democracy works in this country. The logic of partisan allegiance evidently shaped its contrasting approaches to countries led by EPP affiliates and those where EPP members were in the opposition.
When political and economic interests trump principles
Seeking a wider pan-European sway, the EPP strove to protect its Serbian member driven by strategic incentives. Viewing its non-EU allies as potential full members and valuable electoral assets in future EP elections, it had no incentives to excessively criticise the SNS. As one of the few ruling EPP members in this region and a dominant party in Serbia with a significant influence across the post-Yugoslav space, the SNS guaranteed an enduring presence of the EPP in the Western Balkans. An important factor contributing to this dynamic was the close personal relationship between SNS leader Aleksandar Vučić and former CDU leader Angela Merkel. Vučić consistently expressed unwavering admiration for Merkel, considering her as ‘the undisputed leader of Europe’. Crucially, he was a loyal partner in stemming the flow of migrants and preserving regional stability – two fundamental pillars of German Western Balkan policy.
Moreover, most EPP affiliates presumably lacked genuine interest in the issue of democracy in candidate states. Their positions were likely shaped by members more involved in Western Balkan matters – primarily the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union. Reflecting Germany’s vested political and economic interests, characterized by generous state subsidies, weak labour laws, and low wages, these EPP affiliates arguably aimed to downplay criticism of Serbian authorities. Moreover, the repeated attempts of the EPP rapporteur to remove critical remarks about ‘the dominant market position of (state-owned) Telekom Srbija’ and ‘the allegations that the ruling party is using it to increase its influence over the media market’ from the 2023 EP resolution exemplify how broader economic interests may influence the EPP’s lenient stance towards illiberal members.
Remarkable intra-party cohesion and few ideological outliers
The EPP displayed striking cohesion on votes pertaining to Serbian democracy. An overwhelming majority of EPP legislators systematically and consistently toed the party line. The observed voting pattern indicates that the positions of most EPP legislators on this matter were primarily influenced by strategic considerations driven by transnational partisan politics and the necessity to maintain cohesion. The EPP was interested in maintaining influence in the Western Balkans while avoiding alienation of the SNS. This approach took precedence over particular national interests, domestic electoral incentives, or ideological beliefs that might have otherwise inclined individual parties towards a more critical position.
At the same time, dissenting voices within the EPP constituted a small fraction, ranging from one to thirteen MEPs out of 177 legislators. Ideology seems to have predisposed their behaviour as their positions were fundamentally informed by contrasting normative commitments to liberal democratic principles. Notably, the parties that voted against nearly all provisions criticising Serbian authorities were illiberal national conservatives with close ties to Fidesz – the Hungarian Christian Democratic People’s Party and the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania. By contrast, most critical were two Dutch EPP Group members – the Christian Democratic Appeal and the Christian Union – committed to the EU as ‘a community of values’ sharing principles of freedom, the rule of law, and democracy.
EU credibility on the wane
The EPP’s reluctance to confront the democratic deterioration in Serbia proved to be detrimental to the EU’s enlargement policy as it further alienated pro-European parties and domestic stakeholders. A marked difference in how the European People’s Party – but also the Party of European Socialists – responded to similar autocratic tendencies in different candidate countries illustrates the lack of consistency among key EU players, damaging the Union’s already undermined credibility in the region. The article also points to transnational parties’ overall inability to be a driving force behind the ‘norm socialisation’ and ‘Europeanisation’ of their affiliates. Finally, ignoring undemocratic tendencies within their ranks may eventually contribute to the decline of democratic norms in these party families themselves.
Marko Stojić works at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Metropolitan University Prague. His work focuses on party politics in the European Union and the Western Balkans. He is the author of Party Responses to the EU in the Western Balkans: Transformation, Opposition or Defiance?.