According to the latest announcements, on Saturday, June 24, the Serbian Parliament should discuss the proposed amendments to the Law on Ministries, which envisage the establishment of a new separate Ministry for Environmental Protection. This is an important proposal, since in this and the last decade, the area of environmental protection was part of the Ministries that were also in charge of other policy areas usually considered as a priority (spatial planning, energy, agriculture, etc.).
This move is in line with the long-standing recommendations of the professional and wider public, active in the field of environmental protection. Serbia faces enormous problems in the area of environment, while it simultaneously strives towards the membership in the EU, where the environmental standards are particularly high. The complexity and the extensive scope of EU law in the field of environment and the estimated costs of aligning Serbia with the EU standards (at least EUR 10 billion) indicate to the importance of the existence of a special ministry in charge of the environmental protection. In that sense, the new Ministry would be completely focused on environmental policy without prioritization inherent in Ministries with multiple competencies. This reduces the risk that environmental policy will receive less attention in the decision-making process. At the same time, the chances are that the new ministry will work more intensively on environmental protection and harmonization with the EU standards and be more proactive in advocating the necessary reforms in this area towards the centre of the Government, other ministries and other state institutions. Cooperation with civil society, dialogue with local self-governments and business sector is also expected to be intensified. Finally, such a Ministry will be further interested in strengthening its own environmental protection capacities. In overall, the total positive impact on the environment, population health and the accession process is expected to increase.
This sort of development, however, needs to be further ensured, since, according to the proposed amendments of the Law on Ministries, the new Ministry for Environmental Protection, despite its title, will not necessarily contain all the competences relevant for this policy area. In addition to the proposed Ministry of Environmental Protection, there will be a separate Ministry, which besides the agriculture will also be in charge of forestry and water management (and would include the Republic Water Directorate). Tasks related to water protection are mentioned in the list of competences of both ministries which implies that that the water sector would be divided to a certain extent between the ministries. Considering the significant connection of the water and forestry sector with environmental protection, it is necessary to take all appropriate steps in order to avoid a situation in which the new ministry cannot effectively perform its designated function. Coordination between ministries and other institutions is, of course, a necessity that should generally be done not only in the field of environment, but also in other areas of public policy. However, in view of some of the previous identified practices pertaining to insufficient coordination between state institutions, there is a risk that this division of competences could lead to a negligence of certain issues of particular importance for the environment and which are not within the competence of the new ministry (which, in turn, were combined within the previous Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Protection). The same applies, in general, to other areas of importance for environmental protection, which have been part of other Ministries (for example, energy, spatial planning, construction, etc.).
Of course, it is hard to expect that a single Ministry could be fully in charge of all issues of importance to environmental protection, given its complexity and its interaction with other areas of public policy (for example, education, health, etc.). Nonetheless, I still want to highlight, that it is important that as many areas of environmental importance are situated under the roof of a single Ministry, as this ensures greater coherence and a clearer hierarchy between the relevant actors in the decision-making process. Which areas are of particular importance for the environment, can definitely be the subject of a wider discussion, but one of the useful indicators may be that if certain policy areas already belong to the Negotiating Chapter 27 (given that environmental changes are closely related to the process of EU accession). Mechanisms for effective inter-ministerial and inter-institutional co-ordination should be provided for all relevant activities remaining under the competence of other Ministries. This must be considered before the establishment of the new Ministry for Environmental Protection and continuously be taken into account during the course of its work. This is the only to ensure that the maximum “added value” of the new Ministry is achieved, both in terms of environmental protection, as well as performance with regard to the accession negotiations.