Dr Ana S. Trbovich, Professor at FEFA:

Serbia’s Road to Brussels Via Copenhagen

Just when it seemed that Serbia had finally moved on, by taking action to build better prospects for its citizens by assuming control of its public expenditure and improving the business climate, weak rule of law allowed the weight of the inherited regional instability to pull it back

Borders and referenda have regained their primacy in news coverage and living room discussions. The previous experience of political (media) manipulation has rendered people fearful of potential conflicts – and made investors wary.

We have once again been reminded of why good governance matters; why we need an accountable executive government, an independent and efficient judiciary and regulatory bodies, coupled with effective law enforcement. Hence, we return to the Copenhagen Criteria for EU accession, the Alphabet of EU membership conditions. Considering the path of other recent EU members, including those that entered in 2004, this is not a novelty. The EU even took post-entry measures against those members that could not effectively implement the rule of law, while the Visegrad Group had to demonstrate good neighbourly relations prior to accession. Yet, this has proven more difficult in the post-conflict environment of the Western Balkans, especially considering that only Serbia has actively engaged in regional cooperation, while other countries of the region issue statements but rarely take concrete steps and do not hesitate to revert back to the language of conflict during rather frequent election periods.

When we open various negotiation chapters doesn’t matter as much as reforms being implemented

As the European Enlargement Commissioner stated recently, “It is up to the candidate countries themselves to define the dynamics of the accession process. The overall pace of this process will […] depend on progress in key areas, including the normalisation of Serbia’s relations with Kosovo and implementation of the rule of law reforms”. Nonetheless, while Serbia has the power to reform its judiciary and increase government accountability, with no pretext for not achieving more significant progress in this area of reform, it does not have the power to produce regional stability on its own. The EU ambiguity and weak sanctioning of regional bursts of nationalism are not helpful methods in support of stability, nor is the insistence that Serbia “normalise” relations with Kosovo by making one-sided compromises. Instead, these lead to additional frustration and a sense of humiliation, as noted by the highest Serbian officials. The ultimate consequence is reduced, or at least muted, support for the much-needed rule of law and structural economic reforms.

When we open various negotiation chapters doesn’t matter as much as reforms being implemented. Nonetheless, the EU can use these small steps of formal accession progress as encouragement – or sticks. As the allure of EU membership is fading and palpable progress in everyday lives appears ever more distant, the means of inspiration may be more important than the forest of sticks thrown at Serbia over past decades. In the absence of incentives, the government may decide to linger instead of nurturing the progress made on the business climate and proceeding with difficult reforms while looking to the future.