Analysis: Gas deal between Serbia and Putin has created a new headache for Europe


Across the continent, EU heads of state have been mired in grueling negotiations over a sixth sanctions package against Moscow. The final deal, announced late Monday, includes a partial ban on Russian oil imports into the bloc.

Although Serbia is not an EU member state, it is part of an EU enlargement plan that also includes some of its neighbors. The EU is determined to expand eastward and sees the Western Balkans as key to European security, all the more so in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Among these Balkan states, Serbia in particular is considered crucial for many reasons.

Its size, population and geographical location make it a major player in the geopolitics of the region. If you want to have a conversation about the future of Bosnia or Kosovo, you will need the Serbian government in the room.

However, Serbia is also very dependent on Russia when it comes to gas. It is also militarily cooperative with Moscow. In short, Serbia benefits enormously from its relationship with Russia, and even if it obtains EU membership later, it will not want to cut ties with the Kremlin.

This creates for the EU two simultaneous realities which, placed side by side, are quite difficult to reconcile.

Serbia is so big and important that it is crucial to the EU enlargement project, which aims to strengthen and extend European values, stability and security.

He’s also so big and so important that he can strike deals with Russia, China and the EU at the same time – however he sees fit – and remain the apple of Brussels’ eye.

That might be about to change, though.

While Serbia has supported several UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion, it has not sanctioned Moscow or aligned itself with Brussels on sanctions against Moscow – which candidate states are expected to do. The new Russian gas deal, some EU officials and analysts fear, could be a step too far for some EU member states.

“If reached, the deal would dash the hopes of those who saw it as an opportunity to reduce Russian influence in the region,” said Filip Ejdus, associate professor of international security at the University of Belgrade.

Ejdus thinks Vucic might be looking to have his cake and eat it. He predicts that the Serbian president “will certainly reassure that Serbia remains on the path to the EU, while perhaps still waiting for a better counter-offer from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz”.

However, Ejdus warned that “the bet could backfire this time” as the EU has other political priorities at the moment; he says the trust between the two parties can be permanently damaged.

It remains to be seen whether this means that the accession negotiations are bogged down or that the EU takes a different approach. However, there is no denying that the gas deal was a particularly bitter pill to swallow for officials and diplomats in Brussels.

“We are worried,” a senior EU official told CNN. “The alignment of countries outside the EU is more important than ever, for countries inside the EU trying to hold the line,” they said, referring specifically to Hungary, the EU member state most opposed to a tough stance on Russia.

Steven Blockmans, research director at the Center for European Policy Studies, told CNN that since the start of the war, “the EU has been pressuring third countries, including China, to take a similar approach to If even states are currently trying to join the EU to circumvent sanctions, that gives credence to outliers within the bloc for resisting pressure from Brussels to back a strong common stance on Russia.”

And the difficulties that Serbia causes in Brussels do not stop at the sanctions. “This whole situation is a major pain for us, because it is linked to the conversation about whether or not Ukraine will join the EU,” said a senior EU diplomat. Ukraine formally applied for EU membership in early March, a process that can take years even when bloc members fully support a new country joining.

Several officials and diplomats told CNN why this debate is so sensitive for the EU and its internal conversation about the future of the bloc.

Some member states want to speed up the process for Ukraine and believe that Serbia’s lack of alignment with the EU’s approach to Russia speaks in favor of countries wanting to align as soon as possible to get preferential treatment.

Others do not want the membership of Ukraine or the Western Balkan countries at all, fearing that they will change the balance of the EU, giving more power to Eastern European states in a historical bloc. dominated by Western European countries like Germany and France.

Finally, some member states share a degree of Euroscepticism and would welcome another member state less enamored with calls from some countries, notably France, for closer political integration of the bloc.

All of this may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, as a war unfolds on the European continent. However, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has created an opportunity to redraw the security map of Europe.

To some extent, countries traditionally aligned with the United States have seized the opportunity to strengthen Western security with both hands. Finland and Sweden seem ready to join NATO while others, notably Germany, have pledged to increase their defense spending considerably.

The UK, no longer part of the EU, has worked well with its European allies and shown that, despite Brexit, it can still play a leading role in a united European front.

On the other hand, chaos and uncertainty also create opportunities for people in positions like Vucic’s. He is useful in Brussels and Moscow and clearly feels he can continue to play both sides for all they are worth.

The EU has faced many difficulties since the start of the Ukraine crisis, and keeping its 27 member states on its side has not been an easy task. But the fact that Serbia’s gas deal took place the same week as European leaders met to clash over the Russian energy ban (which ended in a fudge) underscores just how some things simply slip out of the centralized hands of Brussels.

Over time, this could become a very sensitive issue for the future of the European project.

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