Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union has been providing material for jokes for years, mostly on the Island-Continent route, and even Serbia has reached one: To quickly fill a vacancy in the EU after Britain’s withdrawal, while the hustle of the divorce between London and Brussels lasts. The author is certainly from these parts, because only someone from the Balkans, accustomed to shortcuts, circumventing the rules, and the famous “coping” can think of something like that. Of course, everything remained at the level of a joke, but in the triangle EU-Britain-Serbia, that is, on the line Belgrade-London, important things are still happening that are far from any joke. Luckily.
The radar of Serbian politics, as well as the public, has been calibrated to the EU, at least when it comes to foreign policy, which is quite understandable, because the relationship between the candidate country and the Union is complex and woven into all social spheres. From Kosovo to trade, human rights and justice, foreign policy and security. Somehow, far and completely undeservedly, a new relationship between Serbia and Britain is developing under that radar, in the new circumstances that have arisen since January 1 this year, since Britain is not formally a member of the European Union.
In the past two months, the rather unpleasant tradition in Serbian-British relations has been severed, when the British Minister of Exports came to Belgrade for the first time in the 21st century, followed by a Minister of Defense of Great Britain. We do not know whether this unpleasant tradition of long-term absence of British ministers in Belgrade would have continued without Brexit, but we should not regret it. Serbia and Britain are very quickly regulating their relations under new circumstances, because they have left the EU framework.
It is very important that Britain and Serbia very quickly filled the gap in their mutual relations, created by Brexit, in two areas that are now, and will be in the future, key to their cooperation, namely trade and defense. Trade between the two countries is not particularly large, about half a billion euros a year, but still twice as large than ten years ago. What far exceeds these figures is the message sent by the new agreement, signed on April 16 at the Palace of Serbia. That Serbia and Britain have continuity of trade relations, that there is no break and that investors, producers, traders, and especially service providers still have a framework in which they can earn well, on both sides.
It is especially important for Serbia that this message is not only addressed to British companies, but to the whole world. Having such an agreement with one of the largest global economies, the second largest exporter of services in the world, a member of the G7, and having it only four months after Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, is a clear message that Serbia is an important British partner, which is a guarantee that the partner is a serious and advanced state and economy. Minister Graham Stuart explained that in order to go a step further than positive messages, reminding that he is also in charge of the British credit agency, which “doubled its appetites” from two to four billion pounds of support for British projects in Serbia.
The first arrival of a British Minister of Defense in Belgrade was preceded by a joint concert of the Serbian and British military orchestra in Knez Mihailova Street. It was fun for the people of Belgrade. The “March on the Drina” and the soundtracks from James Bond movies, the Beatles and “Tamo daleko” intertwined… And after about ten days, work followed. Minister Ben Wallace’s talks at the highest level in Belgrade, signing an agreement on cooperation in the defense sector, visiting a military exercise in southern Serbia attended by British and Serbian soldiers, and laying wreaths at the Commonwealth Cemetery in Belgrade. Altogether, far from the formal, protocol visit of a high-ranking foreign official, especially when one does not lose sight of the fact that this was the first visit of a British Minister of Defense to Serbia.
We are witnesses that all previous announcements from London that the Balkans, and especially Serbia, will remain high on the list of interests of Great Britain even when it withdraws from the European Union, are coming true. Moreover, we see a much more active Britain in Serbia than it was in its European period. That should not surprise us at all, and especially should not scare us, on the contrary. The new British policy towards the Balkans, the one after Brexit, has been carefully prepared for years. Almost four years ago, for example, the House of Lords in the British Parliament asked for advice from all those who can help, how they saw Britain’s attitude towards the Balkans in the period when it leaves the Union. Our Institute has made a number of recommendations and many of them are in the final report of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.
The general conclusion was that Britain, regardless of the withdrawal from the European Union, has many reasons to “stay” in the Balkans, not only as a major world economic, political and security power, but as a factor that was one of the EU’s most vocal advocates of the Balkan countries joining the EU. This is still one of the British priorities related to the Balkans, and especially Serbia, regardless of the fact that London will no longer decide on the admission of new members to the Union. Simply, this British interest in connection with the Balkans coincides with the highest interest of the Balkan countries, and from that point all other lines of cooperation start, from now on in bilateral relations. Judging by the frequent high meetings of Serbian and British officials in Belgrade, which have not been seen for decades or even before, Serbian-British ties are entering a new, much more fruitful phase than they were under the European “umbrella”. Serbia should be satisfied with such development, because it has the opportunity to directly, without intermediaries, but also without noise, develop cooperation with one of the most influential countries and one of the world’s largest economies, but also with one of its closest allies and partners throughout common history. Some bad traditions have been broken in recent months, and others, stronger and longer lasting, have remained as a good foundation for building future Serbian-British relations.