We are starting a public debate about Serbia and the European Union.
Why does Serbia want to become a member of the European Union? The Serbian government and all parties in the Serbian Parliament reiterate Serbia’s wish to become an EU member almost on a daily basis. And the media in Serbia? They echo this wish as often as politicians express it. But nobody wants to tell us why. Of course, there are reasons to strive for membership and go the arduous way of negotiations, legal amendments and implementation of agreements that eventually should lead to reforming the Serbian state and the entire country. But they are presented as being without alternative: look at the map of the Balkans, we are told, and you will realize that Serbia is and will be surrounded by EU members. Look at the charts and figures and you will realize that Serbia is already directing the bulk of its exports to the EU. But these are facts and no reasons that might convince the public. So the question remains: what does Serbia know about Europe, and which direction does she want for Europe to develop?
With some rare exceptions the European Union is absent from the Serbian public. And neither the media in Serbia nor the European Union are making efforts to change this situation. That is particularly regrettable against the backdrop of the efforts other countries and powers are undertaking to raise public attention and to get access to the hearts of the Serbian people.
Two weeks ago for instance, a new star emerged on the media horizon in the Balkans - the Balkan CNN, the N1 regional TV. A lot of time has passed since the West was trying to reach the democratic forces and cultivate democratic opposition on the other side of the Iron Curtain through media, for example by means of the language newsrooms of the BBC, Deutsche Welle, The Voice of America, Radio Free Europe. After the end of the Cold War these media gradually retreated from the Balkans. It was believed back then that the old world order is completely over. 25 years later, however, things seem to have changed. We have the Qatari TV Al Jazeera with strong influence in the Middle East and the Balkans.
We have Russia’s efforts to get more public appearance. Russia funds the English-language channel Russia Today (RT) which gained importance in Serbia; Russia is also funding a cultural center in Nis and sponsoring certain weekly magazines. Next spring, Russia Today is going to run a broadcast in Serbian language. Its Belgrade office will consist of round about 30 people. As of this week, the Balkan CNN has been launched - the N1 TV station. N1 broadcasts from three centers in former Yugoslavia - Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo. This is the same axis Al Jazeera Balkans uses. It is a strong statement of return of the US in the Balkans under the new rules of the geopolitical game - the media front.
Compared to these efforts, the EU seems even more incapable to adequately join the race for the hearts and minds of strategically important regions such as the post-Soviet space and the Balkans. The EU runs the Euronews TV station, which is in English, but it can hardly be described as being influential.
The media environment in the Balkans, but also in many of the former totalitarian states, is strongly dependent on oligarchic or political interests or a combination of both. The Union quite recently began to realize this problem. Last year, for the first time, the European Commission paid serious attention to the media situation in the progress reports of the candidate countries mostly because the situation had already reached critical levels, rendering impossible the creation of sustainable democracy and, most of all, a European system of values. The latter, although unofficially, is a precondition for EU membership,
In this year's progress report on Serbia, the European Commission points out that there is a deterioration of the conditions for the freedom of expression. Part of this problem is the Union's absence as a topic in the Serbian public. When it comes to the EU, it is mainly about the EU funds, negotiating chapters, good or bad reports, and sanctions to be imposed on Russia and nothing else that could help people understand what kind of organization the country is striving to access. On the other hand, the presence of the Russian point of view is too strong. Serbia’s government pretends to be in a somewhat neutral position; it is wavering between Russia and the West and wants to follow the recipe that had worked best in the past, namely Tito’s non-alignment.
The European Union should consider whether to run a strong television station to enhance its foreign policy weight and to win the battle for the strategically important regions, and to win the hearts of people that eventually want to become European citizens. The Union should indeed start this kind of endeavor. But it should do it differently on its own way. The EU should not strive to run media as a propaganda machine. The EU is a success story of overcoming centuries of wars, imperialisms and totalitarianisms; the EU is bound to the heritage of the European enlightenment, to the universality of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the freedom of expression and the freedom of critique, the separation of the State from the churches; by its devotion to democracy, which is a representation of European peoples, not just one European people, European Union is bound to the plurality of its cultural heritages and national traditions. That is the strength of Europe as a soft power with its ambition to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, or use force or give money as a means of persuasion.
And here we come to what Heinrich Boell Foundation Belgrade is starting with its Lectures on Europe. We are deeply convinced that Serbia is in urgent need of a public debate about what Europe might mean and what Serbia can contribute to Europe. And we would like to encourage free and fair critique of the shortcomings of EU policies and the dominance of some major nations over the rest of the EU members in order to develop a more stable European Union that is rooted in truly democratic European citizens that pay respect to European diversity. This is why Lectures on Europe will by no means be apologetic but truly critical and in this sense European.