“With great power comes great responsibility”

The term in this title is also known as the “Peter Parker principle” – a proverb popularised in the Spider-Man comic book series. So, how is it related to Serbia and the EU? Well, it appears that Donald Tusk – former president of the European Council and the current head of the European People’s Party (EPP) – has borrowed this wise proverb (or at least something close to it) in his congratulatory note to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in the context of Serbia’s recent parliamentary elections.

Interestingly, this congratulatory note was addressed to an individual (i.e. Vučić) who personally ran a parliamentary campaign even though he already occupies the position of head of state. This was not a coincidence or a one-time blunder, however. Even before the elections took place, Tusk wished the best of luck to his fellow “friend” (as he once referred to Vučić), by arguing that his “strong leadership” is the essential element of his governance. Keeping in mind that Tusk is one of the biggest critics of Viktor Orbán, whose country left the category of democracies according to the latest Freedom House report, it is unfortunate to see that he strongly endorses the same Orbán-style leadership in Serbia.

By doing so, Tusk has sown confusion among the Serbian expert community, able to see democratic backsliding with their own eyes. This disbelief is also shared by members of civil society, who are facing increased verbal attacks, online bullying, and threats of physical confrontation. In addition, Tusk’s overwhelming praise of the current Serbian regime brings into question the EU’s very own unity, especially after the Socialists and Democrats Group (S&D) in the European Parliament took a diametrically-opposed approach, arguing in the aftermath of elections that “the new Serbian parliament is a mockery of democracy”, and hence (successfully) called on member states not to open further chapters of the acquis with Serbia.

With the titled quote in mind, a few words are needed on the distribution of power in Serbia. Considering that Serbia has a proportional electoral system, which was originally set to allow multi-party politics and coalition-building in the aftermath of the elections, power was never intended to accumulate in the clutches of one party. In this sense, the fact that one party took three quarters of the seats in Parliament in the latest elections was a strong (and the only needed) indicator needed to show that the system has become broken. Even if Serbia were to use a First-past-the-post electoral system and shift to a two-party system (like in the UK for example), the system would still be considered to be broken if one party were to have such a big majority that they could change the whole Constitution on their own. Furthermore, as Serbia is a semi-presidential system, with a double-headed executive branch (an elected President and a Government headed by a Prime minister), power was never intended to be in the hands of one man.

As Tusk is heading the biggest family of political parties in Europe in which the ruling party of Serbia belongs as an associate member, some may justify his decision to be more political and less diplomatic than those of the rest of his peers from the EU. Yet, words carry weight, and after they leave the mouth of one of the most influential persons in the EU, they produce consequences on the ground. No party allegiances should therefore justify the inversion of the truth and facts, especially as Serbian society is more polarised than ever, while many already argue that this Assembly won’t even last full term due to the fact that there is no credible opposition party in it who can provide legitimacy to its work. As Serbia became a “hybrid-regime” according to the latest Freedom House report, and as European Commission reports warned that Serbia shows “clear elements of a state capture”, it only makes sense for EU leaders to take a more cautious and balanced approach, even when it comes to congratulatory notes for party associates.

Finally, to end with another Spider-Man cautionary quote: “Some spiders change colours to blend into their environment. It’s a defence mechanism”. The EU should not change its colours. It should always be proud of its blue and yellow, which could be said to signify “values” and “freedom”. As these colours continue to be washed away in Serbia, the EU is needed more than ever to act as a guide and a counsellor in putting Serbia back on the track towards becoming a consolidated democracy and a member of the EU.

Photo: Insomniac Games/Marvel