There is no doubt that Brexit, European Parliament elections, discussion of the Multi-annual Financial Framework 2021-2027 and the EU’s internal future are placing discussions of EU enlargement on the back burner, however, Serbia is also falling short when it comes to pushing sincerely for its EU future

There are multiple reasons for Serbia’s slow progress on the European path, but many of them can be explained by the pace of change in Serbia itself, determined by the need to deal with judicial reform, combat organised crime and corruption, respect fundamental rights and continue the dialogue with Kosovo.

Jadranka Joksimović
Serbian Minister of European Integration

Serbia’s Commitment Unquestionable

We understand that enlargement is not the top priority for EU members and citizens. However, for us, the positioning of enlargement within the new European structures would be one of the key issues

The overall dynamics of Serbia’s accession negotiation process has maintained a stable and relatively solid pace since the opening of accession negotiations.

Being among the front-runners in the accession process, as acknowledged by the European Commission in its Credible Enlargement Strategy for the Western Balkans, published in February 2018, Serbia has been opening new negotiation chapters every European semester, while at the same time we’ve continued internal work on preparing for the opening of new chapters.

A total of 16 of 35 chapters have been opened, two of which have been provisionally closed, which is generally satisfactory, considering the overall political context in Europe, but also the regional and global challenges that have been confronting the entire continent.

We will maintain our focus in 2019 on areas requiring substantial reform activities, primarily the prevention of corruption and media strategy development

The Serbian government has remained fully committed to implementing reforms in all areas, with an emphasis on the rule of law and the economy.

In the area of the economy, reforms have resulted in overall macroeconomic and fiscal stabilisation and increased growth, which was acknowledged by the European Commission and all relevant international financial institutions.

When it comes to the rule of law, which includes systemic and long-term orientated reforms, 2018 was a year of concrete results, with an emphasis on judicial reform via the process of constitutional amendments, the adoption of important systemic laws, further guarantees for minority rights and a legislative framework in the area of asylum and migration.

We will maintain our focus in 2019 on areas that also require substantial reform activities, primarily the prevention of corruption and development of the media strategy.

Furthermore, the European Commission’s Country report for Serbia will be published in the spring of 2019 and will assess progress throughout all reform areas. As was the case in previous years, we expect an objective and balanced report that will acknowledge progress achieved in all relevant areas, but also Serbia’s decisive, responsible and substantial contribution to regional stability, given that the region referred to as the Western Balkans is geo-strategically and geopolitically important to the EU, but is also of interest to other non-EU players.

As such, we expect a good country progress report that will subsequently lead to the opening of new negotiation chapters with Serbia before the end of June. However, we consider that reforms driven by the accession process should bring us a membership, as we could also deliver on reforms without entering the

EU accession process. We understand that the EU is not in perfect shape these days and that enlargement is not the top priority for EU members and citizens, but if we want to retain and enhance the credibility of the EU and its enlargement policy, we hope and expect that the enlargement policy will remain on the EU agenda throughout 2019.

With the support of the current Romanian Presidency of the EU, we believe that the dynamics of our accession process will be maintained, thus sending a positive political message to Serbian citizens confirming the continuation of the enlargement process.

We also monitor developments on the European political scene closely and look forward to seeing the new composition of European institutions.

So, to conclude, one of the key issues for Serbia will be the positioning of enlargement within new European structures.

Nataša Dragojlović
Coordinator of the National Convention on the European Union

We Obstruct Ourselves

The biggest obstacles on Serbia’s path to European integration are in the areas of the rule of law and political criteria, a shortage of administrative capacities and a lack of political will to consistently apply measures that the country has committed itself to during the course of EU membership negotiations             

Since the publishing in early 2018 of the EU Enlargement Strategy for the Western Balkans until 2025, politicians, journalists, peacekeepers and laymen have been pondering and responding to the question: is it realistic for Serbia to become an EU member within that time frame?

We in the National Convention aren’t happy with the dynamics of the opening of chapters, nor do we hope that Serbia will manage at this pace to fulfil membership criteria by 2025, as is envisaged by the new EU Enlargement Strategy for the Western Balkans. In most open chapters and prepared negotiating positions of the Serbian government, there is an emphasis on the high degree of harmonisation of Serbia’s regulations with the EU Acquis.

Viewed formally, on paper, everything looks like we’re progressing towards the EU. However, despite the declarative political will and measures envisaged and well-planned, the results of implementation are unsatisfactory, and that is so in areas that are key to democratisation and the development of society. Such claims are additionally corroborated by the European Commission’s report and numerous other analyses.

We are opening two chapters during each six-month presidency of the Council of the EU. The support of citizens for the EU integration process remains above 50%. We also have a declarative political will in key strategic documents, the statements of government representatives, the disclosures of the prime minister etc., at every turn. Viewed formally, Serbia is progressing towards EU membership; viewed realistically, Serbia is ever further away from fulfilling membership criteria.

The principle of the separation of powers and the rule of law should be ensured by amendments to the Constitution. However, the proposed Constitutional amendments submitted by the Government of Serbia to the Venice Commission for its opinion represent a step backwards and allow a significantly larger and more direct influence of the government and political parties on the work of courts and prosecutors. This in no way contributes to the affirmation and consistent implementation of the rule of law, without which no reform can be implemented in any area or policy. When it comes to resolving the issue of Kosovo and the normalisation of relations, the year passed in regression.

Viewed formally, serbia is progressing towards eu membership; viewed realistically, serbia is ever further away from fulfilling membership criteria

Members of the National Convention, within the framework of the Internal Dialogue, used the opportunity to highlight to the President of the Republic that the priority in the process of resolving the Kosovo issue must be the preservation of peace and security in the region, and that building lasting peace implies the establishment of the rule of law.

Serbia only receives positive assessments from the European Commission when it comes to economic criteria. Recording improvements on the World Bank’s Doing Business Index and macroeconomic indicators are positive.

Serbia has a better rank than some EU members.

However, a survey on income and conditions for life in Serbia conducted in 2017 shows that the country has had the greatest inequality in the distribution of income in Europe over the last three years, measured according to the so-called Gini coefficient, while half a million Serbian citizens don’t have enough to cover their basic needs. When we add to this the fact that every third student in Serbia wants to leave the country, then the speed of implementing planned reforms and the pace of approaching the European Union could represent a way to stop such trends.

We will continue during the course of 2019 to insist on the securing of the freedom of the media and freedom of speech, a strategic and legal framework that’s harmonised with European principles and practises, the protection of journalists and timely informing of the public, because that – along with the rule of law – represents the foundation of democracy.

Nataša Vučković
Democratic Party (DS) member of the national assembly and chair of the DS ministerial committee for foreign affairs and European integration

We have no excuse for lethargy

The argument Serbia’s EU integration progress is slow due to a lack of interest within Europe fails to hold water when we look at the pace Montenegro is progressing, markedly faster and more successfully

The slowdown is the word that best describes the dynamics of the process. And this slowdown is very troubling. It is visible at several levels, both in the advancement of accession negotiations and the dynamics of the opening of chapters, the contents of reforms and their implementation, as well as in the general situation in Serbia.

The small number of chapters opened since the beginning of accession negotiations in 2014 testifies to the slow pace in the government’s completion of homework tasks. The argument that the reason for this is a lack of interest in further enlargement within the EU is invalid. That’s because Montenegro launched accession negotiations in June 2012 and opened 30 chapters in five years.

Serbia, meanwhile, opened 16 chapters from 2014 to 2019! The government is late in implementing measures required for the opening of some chapters – for example, an inexplicably long time has been taken in preparing the Action Plan for Chapter 19 – Employment and Social Policy. For Chapter 31 (External Policy), the EU has not yet sent us a screening report, which represents a kind of message.

The past few months have seen EU criticisms sharpening concerning the unsatisfactory situation in the areas of the rule of law, fundamental rights etc. The executive’s influence over the judiciary remains high. In work undertaken on preparing amendments to the Constitution that would ensure adherence to the principles of judicial independence, the Government has proposed solutions that have been heavily criticised by the expert public and civil society.

The fight against corruption is toothless and invisible. The functioning of institutions has been severely diminished, starting from the national assembly– where the rights of the opposition are violated continuously, while good practices established in independent institutions have been diluted.

The situation in the media is far from respecting the European values of freedom of expression, political pluralism etc.

The general flow of reforms in Serbia is unsatisfactory – without a good administration and strong institutions, it is all but impossible even to implement reforms already launched. The state administration has been hit by the ban on hiring new staff, with the large-scale involvement of employment along party lines, but also the widespread practice of employing temporary or contractual employees.

Under such conditions, there is no enthusiasm and dedication to work on reforms.

The accession process should also ensure the embedding of European values. For this goal to be realised, there is a need for the government’s great commitment, persistence and true conviction in European integration. Built upon this should be a serious communication strategy that wouldn’t move towards spreading doubt in the correctness of Serbia’s European path, but rather towards creating and nurturing broader support for Serbia’s European path. I think that would provide a strong argument that the EU wouldn’t be able to ignore when it comes to providing even greater support to Serbia.

Srđan Majstorović
Chairman of the Governing Board of The European Policy Centre – CEP

Serbia could, and can, do much better!

The current efforts of the Serbian government in pursuing the accession process yield an ambiguous picture. There is a lack of a clear determination and sense of orientation. It looks like the aim is to join the EU, but there is still no appetite for change

On 21st January 2019, Serbia marked the fifth anniversary of the launch of EU accession negotiations. In the previous five years of negotiations, Serbia has finalised the Screening Process, as the initial phase of negotiations (although Screening report for chapter 31 on Common Foreign and Security Policy is still pending, due to a lack of consensus among EU member states); 16 negotiation chapters have been opened, with two provisionally closed, and an additional five negotiation positions have been officially submitted to the EU for consideration.

When compared with the previous wave of enlargement (with 4-6 years from the start of accession negotiations, the opening and closing of all Chapters, the signing of the Accession Treaty and national referenda, to actual EU accession) the dynamics of the accession process are obviously considerably slower.

EU accession has been portrayed in public as a box-ticking exercise of simply opening and closing negotiation Chapters, while substantial transformation in the process is based on the gradual harmonisation of national legislation with the EU Acquis and its implementation.

Even from the official “we are doing this because of ourselves” perspective, it is difficult not to be cynical and to conclude that, at this moment, we are not doing that much for ourselves, since official harmonisation programmes and action plans are far from being respected and properly implemented. It is thus easy to conclude that Serbia could, and can, do much better!

The EU’s internal agenda will be extremely difficult this year, with brexit, european parliament elections and discussions of the future of the EU. Under these unfavourable conditions, Serbia will have to rediscover its drive for transformation

The dynamics of Serbia’s EU accession process in 2019 depend on its readiness to prove its credibility and implement all required changes – the most important of which are those related to judicial reform, the fight against organised crime and corruption, respect of fundamental rights and the dialogue with Kosovo.

Success, or a lack thereof, in chapters related to the rule of law, will continue to shape the decisions of EU member states on how many chapters will be opened. The EU’s internal agenda will be extremely difficult, with Brexit, European Parliament elections, discussion of the Multi-annual Financial Framework 2021- 2027 and the future of the EU. This will, unfortunately, push the topic of enlargement to the margins of policy discussion.

Under these unfavourable conditions, Serbia will have to rediscover the drive for transformation. Current efforts provide an ambiguous picture. There is a lack of a clear determination and sense of orientation. It looks like the aim is to join the EU, but that Serbia lacks the appetite for change.

Maintaining the process just for the sake of EU membership and missing the opportunity to modernise the country is a sign of a lack of understanding and vision. This is causing distrust in some EU member states, who are confused by messages from Serbia and pressured by their sceptical public.

These are all reasons why Serbia needs to show its determination and prove its credibility by speeding up real reforms that should persuade the staunchest sceptics of its readiness to become an EU member.

Suzana Grubješić 
Secretary-General Of The European Movement In Serbia

Kosovo Remains Key to Accession Process

Serbia has some difficulties in fulfilling all criteria for EU membership, but mostly with the resolution of the Kosovo issue. However, it appears that constituencies, both in Serbia and in Kosovo, are prepared for some kind of deal facilitated by the European Union

Serbia opened its EU accession negotiations on 21st January 2014, and since then 16 of a total of 35 negotiation chapters have been opened, with two chapters since provisionally closed. For a country that has been praised by the European Commission as a “frontrunner” in the accession process, this pace of opening two chapters per accession conference can be labelled as slow-motion. Only Turkey has had the same dynamics when it comes to opening chapters.

There are multiple reasons for Serbia’s path to the EU being so bumpy, and not all of them are necessarily in Serbia’s court. The criteria for EU membership are well established and the reform priorities are highlighted: the rule of law, a functioning market economy, and the adoption of definitive binding solutions to all bilateral disputes prior to accession.

Serbia has some difficulties with all of them, but mostly with resolving the Kosovo issue. To say that the specifics of an arrangement are tricky is an understatement, but it appears that constituencies, both in Serbia and in Kosovo, are prepared for some kind of deal facilitated by the European Union.

The enlargement toolbox needs a serious overhaul, and the political engagement of the eu is needed more than ever if it wants to remain competitive against other external actors

When it comes to the rule of law, the EU needs to reassert its role as a normative and transformative actor, by strengthening its credibility on this core issue and focusing on the process of political transformation and democratic consolidation.

Meanwhile, the European Union itself is facing an internal crisis in the rule of law, with several countries seriously threatening the judiciary, the media and civil sector, bringing into question fundamental European values like freedom and solidarity, and becoming susceptible to authoritarian temptations. This democratic decline reduces the EU’s ability to serve as a model for accession countries.

In addition to all of those as mentioned earlier, the enlargement toolbox needs a serious overhaul, and the political engagement of the EU is needed more than ever if it wants to remain competitive against other external actors. The prospect of a complete renewal of the EU’s leadership following elections to the European Parliament could be both complicated and encouraging.

The newly elected European Parliament and the new European Commission are expected to do enough to shift the dynamics of Serbia’s accession process. If Serbia succeeds, in the very best case, in becoming a member of the European Union in 2025, it will be exactly a quarter of a century after the fall of Slobodan Milošević and the launch of democratic change.