Written by: Maria Zheleznova
Edited by: Carla Navarro i Triola


Enlargement towards the Western Balkans has been on the European Union (EU) agenda for more than two decades now. Yet, the recent war between Russia and Ukraine has made the EU act towards the enlargement more decisively by proclaiming that enlargement is in its security interests. According to the EU Commission, “in times of increasing global challenges and divisions, it remains more than ever a geostrategic investment in a stable, strong, and united Europe” (European Commission, 2020). Europeanisation and the future integration of the EU’s neighbourhood are crucial issues on the EU agenda.

Yet, the attitude of the EU towards security has been changing recently, with more and more efforts put towards strategic autonomy. So even though the EU is still working towards enlargement, there may be several security-related obstacles for which the EU is unlikely to make any concessions. Serbia is of particular interest here, as it is influenced by several external actors, and is an example of a country that pursues EU accession but where the interests of other countries overlap. This article investigates the question of whether Serbia’s domestic and foreign policies are compatible with the EU’s interests and, particularly, with recent efforts to gain strategic autonomy and undergo a structural transition in the fields of security and economy (EEAS, n.d.). The article argues that the strong influence of actors like Russia or China goes against the current geopolitical priorities of the EU.

EU-Serbia negotiations

Serbia applied for EU membership in December 2009 and was granted the candidate status in March 2012. The EU-Serbia accession negotiations began in January 2014 and, so far, 22 out of 35 negotiation chapters have been opened. The main requirements for the EU accession are stated in the Copenhagen criteria (1993):

  • Stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, rule of law, human rights, respect of minorities.
  • Functioning market economy, capacity to handle competitive EU economy.
  • The acquis communautaire (single market regulations) (EUR-Lex, n.d.).

Western Balkans are also expected to fulfil the conditions voiced at the European Councils 1997 and 1999 in Luxembourg and Cologne, respectively, where their presidencies set the path to further enlargement and highlighted the importance of additional criteria:

  • Willingness to establish cooperation and good relations with neighbours, respect for other countries’ sovereignty and peaceful resolution of conflicts.
  • Respect for the principles of international law and fulfilment of international obligations, set by the International Court of Justice in the Hague (European Parliament, n.d.).

For the EU, good relations among the Western Balkan states are crucial, since the enlargement towards the region was initially regarded as an investment in the stabilisation and peacefulness of this region. The EU is hoping to abide by geopolitical and security risks; otherwise, it is likely to pay the price of ethnic conflicts, instability and poor governance in the region (Vachudova, 2019).

For Serbia, the stumbling blocks for EU accession turned out to be regional cooperation, good neighbourly relations and respect for international obligations. It was Serbia’s lack of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) that made the negotiations stall in 2006. Serbia was hesitant to bring to the Hague the ICTY indictees involved in the atrocities associated with the Yugoslavia breakup. Cooperation with the ICTY became the EU’s main measurement of Serbia’s fulfilment of international justice obligations since this was convenient to assess. The EU applied a straightforward policy of issue linkage, tying Serbian compliance with international justice requirements to improvements in its international standing, which in the long run proved to be ineffective (Subotic, 2010).

Within the EU itself, the practices of multi-level governance and subsidiarity involve a distribution of power among different levels of government, from local to supranational, but with the relations of candidate states, the EU Commission has the upper hand in the adoption of necessary policies and fulfilment of the criteria (Cerovic and Uvalic, 2010). The enlargement impacts security-related issues, and taking control of the process is crucial for the member states. In 2021, however, the accession negotiations became more tailored, as the EU Commission proposed a revised enlargement methodology for negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro, consisting of 6 clusters and 35 chapters. It incorporates the new approach on issues of judiciary, fundamental rights, justice, freedom and security, and the matter of the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo (European Council, 2021). By defining conditions and measurements of the progress, the EU can manipulate the costs of non-compliance and attempt to move the countries in the desired direction. The EU has been able to sharpen its control, breaking the enlargement process down into stages (Cerovic and Uvalic, 2010).  

Clashes of interest

For the EU, the Russia-Ukraine war has raised geopolitical concerns in the Western Balkans. The EU became more cautious about the growing Russian influence in the region and decided to speed up the integration (Bargués et al, 2022). Historically, Russia has been close to Serbia, as both countries are Slavic and adhere to the Orthodox religion. Russia has backed local resistance to accession to NATO and supports Serbia’s stance towards Kosovo. Russian influence in the region is not only political but also economic as visible in the energy sector. Since 2009, the Russian petrol company “Gazprom Neft” has been a majority-owner (51% of the shares) of the Serbian petroleum state company “NIS”, which covers 25% of overall Serbian oil needs (NIS, 2023).

The EU insists that Serbia prioritises its alignment with the EU foreign and security policy regarding the issue of Russia. Regarding the Common Foreign and Security Policy, in 2021, Serbia’s alignment rate with the EU High Representative declarations and Council Decisions was 64%. But in August 2022, this rate decreased to 45 %. Serbia refused to adopt any sanctions against Russia. For instance, it still receives senior Russian officials who are on the EU sanction list. In September 2022, Serbia’s Foreign Minister signed a plan of consultations for 2023-2024 with his Russian counterpart, which happened two days after President Putin announced to hold referendums in Ukrainian territories to annex them (European Commission, 2022).

The influence of China in Serbia is mostly economic. China has used the “16+1” format, as a part of the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), to establish close economic ties with the Western Balkan states, with Serbia being the main beneficiary among them. This cooperation promises new infrastructure and investment in different projects, with large-scale job creation and no political conditions, unlike the EU (Economides, 2020). In the Western Balkans, Chinese investments surpass the amount of six billion euros in loans, mostly targeting the energy, infrastructure and transport sectors, which the EU considers critical. BRI creates development opportunities that could help the Western Balkans get out of the middle-income trap: that is, when a country is stuck between being a developing and a developed one (Larsen, 2020).

There is a fear in the EU that these Chinese activities will add to the already existing corruption problems (Vucic, 2020). In the 2022 EU Enlargement Report, the Commission stated that in 2021 Serbia agreed to an alleged 3.2 billion euro sewage and wastewater program under BRI without tender (European Commission, 2022). There was little transparency and no official documents were publicly available. Chinese financing of power plants and factories also hinders compliance with the EU’s environmental standards (Economides, 2020). Ties between Serbia and China in the security field raise concerns for the EU as well, with their joint police exercises and purchases of surveillance equipment (European Commission, 2022).

EU: de-risking and strategic autonomy

The EU is currently prioritising its strategic autonomy, with a will to decrease the number of external dependencies to counter the risk associated with international supply chains in security-related sectors. Firstly, the Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) introduced by the EU Commission in September 2022 presupposes the identification of strategically important raw materials (which are mostly imported from China), creating innovations and substituting imports from unreliable partners. According to Commissioner Thierry Breton, China uses raw materials as a geopolitical tool. Therefore, the CRMA aims at creating more resilient supply chains, meaning the replacement of at least a part of imported raw materials with those produced within the EU (European Commission, 2022).

Another initiative recently proposed by the Commission, Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform (STEP), is supposed to provide the necessary funds to the EU companies to undergo the digital and green transition, helping them to deliver critical technologies to the EU, build resilient economies and thus strengthen European sovereignty. The EU is willing to rebuild its industry to be more globally competitive and independent from external actors. The budget of STEP is going to be built on EU programs such as the Innovation Fund, European Defence Fund, and Recovery and Resilience Facility. Therefore, it will connect defence, green transition, economic resilience and strategic autonomy (European Commission, 2023).

This is in line with the de-risking strategy which Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced in March 2023, which combines both decoupling and strategic autonomy. The aim is to limit the dependence on China and increase the resilience of supply chains in light of global political events (García-Herrero et al., 2023). Von der Leyen claims that in some areas, trade and investments pose a risk to the national security of the EU, so more efforts should be directed to checking whether investments are in line with the EU security interests. Better coordination of policies towards China is needed between the EU member states to avoid the divide and conquer tactics, she adds (European Commission, 2023).

If the EU wants to achieve this aim, it also needs to align the accession countries’ stance towards China. Otherwise, close relations between China and Western Balkans will undermine the EU’s efforts in this direction. The impact of the above-mentioned initiatives will be limited if Western Balkans will continue relying on China for their infrastructural needs. Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) are strategically important for the EU, and efforts are made towards autonomy from Chinese critical infrastructure. At the same time, Serbian infrastructural projects involve a great amount of Chinese funds. While for the EU, the focus is on security and geopolitical issues, for Serbia and the Western Balkans in general, economic development is more important. This includes building infrastructure and strengthening economic competitiveness at the lowest possible costs. The point of consensus and reconciliation in this clash of interests is the need for economic resilience for both the EU and Serbia. Thus, the EU should ensure that it invests money effectively to help the country build a resilient and stable economy and plays the card of future enlargement wisely, using it as leverage to impose conditionality, making sure that the Chinese alternative is not as attractive for Serbia.


Although Serbia started its path towards EU accession almost two decades ago, there are still some cornerstones: territorial disputes, relations with neighbours, and corruption. Serbia’s relations with Russia and China can pose threats to EU security as well. Russia interferes mostly with Serbia’s alignment with the EU foreign policy, and Russia’s control of Serbia’s oil sector is not favourable to the EU, as they are willing to phase out reliance on Russian energy resources. Chinese investments in Serbia also go against current EU efforts of de-risking and building its critical infrastructure without dependence on external producers. Serbia is thus facing a dilemma, and it is in the interests of the EU to make it clear that cooperation with Russia and China is only a short-term solution, while integration with the EU will yield benefits for the development in the long run.


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