Is Serbia ready to read Progress Report 2018 correctly?

On 17 April 2018 European Commission (EC) presented a package of documents on EU Enlargement policy. Communication on EU Enlargement Policy and individual Country Reports for Western Balkans countries and Turkey were published. By publishing previously mentioned documents, after a year and a half long break, EC continues to maintain the focus on EU Western Balkans Enlargement. On the same day, French President E. Macron addressed European Parliament (EP) saying that EU must firstly deepen integration between the member states before further focusing on enlargement. The existence of disagreement on strategic priorities when it comes to the relationship between the EU and Western Balkan countries is obvious.

In February EC started a new initiative about credible Western Balkan enlargement based on a re-discovered strategic importance of the region for EU stability. The Strategy offered a potential timeframe for the accession to the EU of the leading candidates in 2025. Simultaneously, wording of the document stepped out of the frame of eurocratic jargon and for the first time, very clearly defined problems which the Western Balkan countries are facing, such as “captured state”, relationship between organised crime and authorities, political influence on judiciary, corruption, vulnerability of freedom of expression and media. The Strategy encountered divided stances among the Member States.

The report published on 17 April 2018 represents the first overview, after publishing the Strategy, of Western Balkan countries’ preparedness for becoming EU members and their progress compared to the previous report. That is why this report should be observed as a starting point from which candidate countries and potential candidates will start to prove their own credibility and determination to respond to EC proposition on possible 2025 accession. Report more specifically than before expresses the issues which candidates must pay attention to if they want to make progress in the upcoming period. EC is determined in intent to introduce more direct and more transparent language in reporting. This is very important since EC must preserve its own credibility and integrity with precise reporting about open issues and while at the same time defending its Strategy and 2025 membership perspective for leading Western Balkan countries. The report will be thoroughly analysed in capitals of the Member States as well. Based on its content European Council will scrutinize conclusions which should define further guidelines in regard to this process and EU enlargement policy, especially with regard to the recommendation of EC to open accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia.

Report on Serbia represents a very clear and objective overview of the current state of affairs. Fundamental issues which are in focus of the EC, as well as the member states, are related to the rule of law, good governance, fight against corruption and organised crime, freedom of expression… Besides reform in stated fields, continuation of constructive dialogue with Pristina in order to achieve comprehensive agreement on normalisation of relations will have a great influence on pre-accession negotiations dynamics of Serbia and the EU.

Very poor functioning of the National Assembly is particularly emphasised. The report mentions that National Assembly is not performing its supervisory role over the work of the Government, i.e. it is not implementing its function defined in the Constitution. If this information is supplemented with scores on political influence on judiciary and media, as well as lack of dialogue with the opposition, a pretty bad image on the state of democracy and rule of law in Serbia is painted.

The emphasis on the necessity of strengthening and maintaining the capacity for European integration, as well as the need to preserve “institutional memory” which would ensure reform sustainability in the EU accession process, is worrying. This is the first time that Serbia is getting an estimation which implies a problem of quality and decreasing number of experts on European affairs. European Policy Centre published a study in 2017 on the need to produce a quality policy for retention of personnel as a prerequisite for a sustainable process of accession to the EU. This study has also referred to great commitment of employees working on European integration affairs and management of IPA funds. However, it also has shown that the employees are unsatisfied with unprofessional management, inadequate salary system, lack of recognition of their work, low income, inadequate human resources management, advancement… An alarming fact is that at the time of making the study 50% of respondents were considering the option of leaving public administration. It is clear that without experts Serbia won’t be able to respond to the challenges which are set before it with the 2025 membership perspective and it is about time to pay attention to this problem.

Certain positive changes are registered in the field of economic criteria, however, the delay in structural reform has been identified. Serbia’s constructive participation in regional initiatives has been complimented on, especially within the Berlin Process and contribution in the field of economic and infrastructure connection of the region.

Generally speaking, judgement of the EC is worrying since it is stated that, compared to the previous report from 2016, level of preparedness for the accession of Serbia to the EU has not improved in any of the 35 chapters, despite some progress in particular fields. On the contrary, comparative result analyses of the countries of the region show that some have made more significant progress that Serbia despite different status in EU accession process. These results show that despite the positive effect on the public and the impetus for further reform, the sole act of opening chapters is not necessarily an indicator of genuine progress. That means that citizens do not feel changes which were promised to them through opening individual chapters. This can cause a further decrease of citizen’s enthusiasm and undermine legitimacy for continuing European integration and necessary reforms. It is very important to show the citizens concrete progress through reform and concrete European standards in practice. This is especially important in the field rule of law. Citizens’ stance towards reform would be most affected by clear determination to fight corruption, to prove to the citizens that no one is “untouchable” when it comes to prosecuting suspects for organised crime and similar examples. In that way, credibility for the process would be reclaimed. Concrete results would finally confirm worn-out platitude that everything we do in the process of European integration we are doing primarily for ourselves. Concrete results would increase the country’s resistance to different influences, both internal and external, in whose interest it is that Serbia does not succeed in a realisation of Strategy 2025.

A year and a half since the last EC report, evidently Serbia did not do as much as it could and needed to, considering the constantly present pretention of having a role of leader in the region. It is clear that sole act of opening the negotiations doesn’t necessarily mean progress. That’s why this year’s report needs to be read in the right way in order to recognise wider, European and world context, in which Serbia’s success is being estimated. A timeframe for accession to the EU which was presented in the Strategy of EC is still not officially accepted by the EU member states. European Parliament elections will be organised next year and future composition of the EP will affect Parliament’s relationship towards EU enlargement. Having in mind the atmosphere in the public, certainly EU enlargement won’t be very popular, even though it will play an important role in the election campaign.

Everything stated implies that it is necessary to significantly change the previous reform approach in the process of Serbia’s accession to the EU. A genuine effort needs to be put in to respond to the evaluation of the EC. Having in mind EC recommendation on opening the negotiations with Albania and Macedonia, Serbia has an additional chance to take a position of a constructive and reliable partner which understands the values on which EU is based, such as solidarity, tolerance, reconciliation and developing cooperation in the region. Serbia must recognise this opportunity and offer its own experience to all interested partners in the region. New Macedonian authorities have shown that true political will must be present for true democratic reform. That is the only way to prove the credibility of political choice which Serbia accepted by submitting a request to join the EU.