OPINION: EuroPride in Belgrade: The EU must do better and demand more from Serbia

by Koen Slootmaeckers | City, University of London
Wednesday, 19 October 2022 10:40 GMT

Police officers stand guard ahead of the European LGBTQ pride march in Belgrade, Serbia, September 17, 2022. REUTERS/Zorana Jevtic

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The attacks on the recent Pride parade in the Serbian capital show that the EU must step up its promotion of LGBTQ+ rights across Europe

Dr Koen Slootmaeckers is senior lecturer in international politics at City, University of London

One month after the EuroPride took place in Belgrade under suspicious and questionable political circumstances, we start observing what the international community makes from the event, the weeks leading up to it and the state’s action or inaction to secure the Pride march.

Indeed, on October 12, the European Union (EU) adopted its EU enlargement package, which includes the Progress Report on Serbia and on October 13, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly held a special debate on the events around this year’s EuroPride.

These two different responses do not only show the different analysis by the two different institutions, but also raise important questions about the nature of the EU enlargement process and the role of LGBTQ+ rights in it.

Does the EU really care about LGBTQ+ rights?

Almost immediately after Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić announced that the Belgrade Pride should be cancelled or postponed on August 27, the international community responded by reminding Serbia of its obligations under international treaties as well as the expectations set by the EU enlargement process.

This international outcry, combined with the determination of local activists in many ways forced the government to allow for some version of EuroPride to take place. However, as Evelyn Paradis from ILGA-Europe noted, EuroPride might have happened, yet it is the Serbian state that succeeded in attacking the right to freedom of assembly and the rights of LGBTQ+ people more generally.

These tactics are not new to Serbia. In the past decade, it has always had a very instrumental take on LGBTQ+ rights. It would adopt just enough LGBTQ+ rights to appease the EU, or appoint a lesbian Prime Minister as a smoke screen to distract from homophobic and nationalistic internal politics.

Indeed, the fact that Vucic announced the reappointment of Ana Brnabić and the cancellation of Pride in the same press conference only reinforced these tactics.

This being the case, the question then remains, did the EU learn? Or is Serbia still able to have its cake and eat it too?

When it comes to the EU – it seems that Serbia’s tactics have been partially successful. Whilst the EU has included the political context preceding the EuroPride in its progress reports, it did so in as a matter of fact. It highlights the ban, and the contradictory messaging from the state, but it does not provide any political, let alone critical, analysis.

At best, the report simply highlights the non-committal nature of the Serbia’s engagement with EuroPride: “The period prior to the march was marked by legal and political uncertainty. The communication of the authorities was contradictory… they remained non-committal about the parade going ahead with an official permit.”

This language reminds me of the reports the EU Commission issued between 2009 and 2012, when it expressed a regret that Pride parades were banned. Then, it was only after a deal was struck between Pristina and Belgrade, that the EU changed it language and condemned the 2013 Pride ban as a “lack of political will”.

Yet, this year, with geopolitical tensions in Europe running high again, with the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and new tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, it seems that the EU once again prioritises regional stability over fundamental rights.

Despite the EU Commission taking lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights more serious as its LGBTQ+ strategy would suggest, it does not seem to trickle down into policy. When push comes to shove, the EU’s true colours come through, and the attacks by Serbia on LGBTQ+ and fundamental rights are not adequately responded to.

Once again, Vucic managed to balance being pulled in two opposite directions (LGBTQ+ rights and the EU vs nationalist extremists and the Church) to the detriment of LGBTQ+ people.

If the EU Commission is really to be serious about the LGBTQ+ rights, it will have to find a way to be able to hold candidate countries to account when they are underdelivering. It will have to be able to look beyond the symbolic gestures and always push for a political analysis and ask what is being done for LGBTQ+ people. It will have to be able to deliver the difficult messages.

But as long as the Commission remains fearful of losing Serbia as a partner, or has Commissioners in charge of enlargement who are affiliated with the Fidesz party – a political group known to be anti- LGBTQ+ –, Vucic will always be able to play his game and have his cake to eat it too.

It is time for the EU to put the money where it mouth is and unapologetically demand changes to improve LGBTQ+ rights and political action to tackle homophobia beyond mere symbolism.