The EU body of law is not called “EU law” but the acquis communautaire, because it is a combination of so-called hard and soft laws and has the important role of building a consensus on how it is to be implemented in practice. Therefore, analysing how EU directives are implemented in national legislation and evaluating whether there is a sufficient degree of alignment of Serbia’s legislation with EU standards is both a matter of expertise and politics. While all new members have to fully adapt to EU standards, the interpretation of the achieved level of harmonisation is ultimately a political decision.
Moreover, as the EU is learning from its past mistakes, the bar is constantly being raised on Serbia’s EU track. Most poignantly, Serbia will need to demonstrate not only that the national legislation contains the right provisions, but also that these provisions are enforced. It is for this reason that the EU places a special spotlight on the workings of the regulatory bodies and the judiciary. Another reason why the rule of law is among the first chapters negotiated with the EU is the recognised importance of institutions in both enabling reforms and ensuring a stable and democratic society. The first goal of the European Union is to ensure peace, while market development comes second. The Western Balkans, as a post-conflict area, is considered particularly vulnerable and the word “stabilisation” indicates strong concern about the achieving of sustained change. It is in this context that Serbia’s negotiations should be viewed.
With all of this in mind, it is understandable that the first two of the 35 chapters comprising the acquis communautaire that Serbia and the EU formally began negotiating in the past year relate to national and regional stability (“the normalisation of Belgrade-Pristina relations”) and public expenditure oversight (“financial supervision”). Although concern over fiscal policy is certainly heightened as a result of the financial crisis, the essence of this second “chapter” lies in accountable governance. The next two chapters will delve deeper into ensuring human and minority rights and the functioning of the judiciary.
Citizens recognise the fight against corruption and judicial reform as the most important reforms, followed by the reform of education and the health system
As noted, while European Commission experts carry out a technical review of legislation and its implementation, the member countries add a political lens. Croatia has, thus, interpreted that requirements for the opening of new chapters should include the handing over of Vojislav Šešelj to the Hague Tribunal and enhanced parliamentary rights for minorities, namely Croats. It will be left to political discussion among EU members to decide whether these conditions merit a delay in the opening of additional chapters or if they will be reviewed as part of that negotiation process. This is a case in point illustrating the intersection between technical and political conditionality colouring the EU accession process.
Importantly, while many Serbian citizens resent the politics of the EU accession process, a high portion (73%) support the related reforms and consider that they should be implemented for our own sake, even if not demanded by EU accession. Citizens recognise the fight against corruption and judicial reform as the most important reforms, followed by the reform of education and the health system.
The remaining issue is how upcoming elections in Serbia will impact on the EU accession process. Simply put, since legislative reforms have been halted so has the accession mechanism. At the same time, experts should continue to prepare and implement reform policies, including further technical meetings with the European Commission, as part of the accession negotiations. However, the principle problem in Serbia is that the number of experts is limited and many expert positions have been politicised, leading to a high turnover in public administration and insufficient knowhow to implement reforms efficiently and therefore also advance EU membership. With each election, too many layers within the administration change and we lose some precious knowledge and experience. In order to overcome this problem, Serbia needs to build a professional, non-political civil service. Special expertise in acquis communautaire and sector-level technical knowledge also requires adequate compensation, which can only be achieved if the public sector is reformed to reduce losses and allow for increased spending that leads to greater efficacy. Public administration is the engine of change in the EU accession process.