Serbia needs to rethink, reset and restart its EU accession agenda

Country Report 2019 for Serbia sends a confusing picture of a country that is being perceived as frontrunner in the EU accession process, involved in accession negotiations since 2014, and yet obviously lacks reform drive, ambition, capacities and most importantly results that could prove its advanced status. The report is not revealing anything that is particularly new to citizens of Serbia. It rather confirms the lack of political will to address the issues that have been mentioned repeatedly in its previous editions. To the outsiders, this Report is presenting a negotiating candidate country who struggles with the implementation of basic democratic rules and principles stated in Copenhagen EU accession criteria, which makes Serbia very difficult case to promote as the aspiring EU Member State.

This will have a negative influence on enlargement friendly Member States (which are anyway few these days) that honestly wants to help Serbia and the Western Balkans region in promoting their EU integration.

The Report provides an objective overview of the current state of affair in Serbia’s EU accession process. It stresses the importance of those crucial elements for the functioning of democratic institutions, rule of law and protection of fundamental rights. Its findings about urgent need to create environment for cross-party dialogue represent an invitation to the Government and ruling coalition to open up public dialogue with opposition parties on how to move out of a deadlock that was caused by the abuse of parliamentary procedures, abuse of office, lack of media freedoms, violence against political opponents, threats and attacks against journalists and civil society organizations, and infringements of freedom of expression. The latest has been particularly emphasized as a matter of serious concern since no progress has been achieved since last year Report. The lack of political will to address the issues concerning one of the major principles of a democratic society should certainly be a matter of concern for all citizens of Serbia.

After one year, some progress in the area of rule of law has been recognized. Unfortunately, Serbia is still far from making any progress regarding its level of preparedness to assume obligations deriving from the EU membership. Undue political influence on judiciary, prevalent corruption and uneven implementation of fundamental rights is, again, a matter of concern. European Commission found that the role of independent and regulatory bodies needs yet to be recognized. It means that the Government does not pay attention to the functioning of these institutions some of which are embodied in Serbia’s constitution. In the past five years, Parliament did not discuss nor adopt reports of independent institutions. Without proper conclusions by the Parliament, the Government is unable to introduce much-needed amendments that should improve implementation of important legislation implemented and monitored by independent or regulatory bodies. Thus, there is a serious question mark regarding the Government’s intentions if it fails to respect the existing institutions, while keeping them functioning with a lack of staff and resources and does not follow their recommendations.

Unsurprisingly, the Commission is using this Report to invite the Government to be objective in its communication about the EU as its main economic and political partner.

EC reminds that EU accession was Serbia’s strategic choice which should be more actively and unambiguously communicated in public debate. It is a strange but obvious reminder to the Government of EU acceding country that pretends to be a leader in the region while some of its ministers are openly questioning Serbia’s EU orientation. This is exactly ambiguity that 2019 Report refers to.

Serbian Government needs to reinvent its communication plans and work on its skills if it wants to leave a positive impression as a credible partner to the EC and EU Member States.

The European Policy Centre (CEP) every year prepares a statistical overview of findings in the Country Report. We have devised a methodology that translates the scoring system of the EU into a numerical scale. This year it shows that in the area of Political Criteria Serbia achieved an average score of 2,6 which is a lower level of progress then it was in 2017 and 2016 (2,8), while it remains at the same level of preparedness to assume EU membership obligations as in previous two years (2,2). It is a concerning sign of lack of transformative power of the EU accession process and a reminder that democratization of society does not necessarily coincide with its EU integration path. There is plenty of room for improvement and both EC and Serbia should draw lessons out of it.

Even in the Economic Criteria section which was widely acknowledged as the most positive one in the Report, there is no reason for excitement. Serbia has achieved a lower level of progress in 2018 (3) then in 2017 (3,5) and remained at the same level of preparedness to assume EU membership obligations as in past two years (3). Progress made in negotiation chapters is almost carbon copy of the last years Report. Some progress has been achieved in 63% (21), no progress in 24% (8) and good progress in 12% (4) out of 33 negotiating chapters. What is particularly worrying is that there is no progress in those areas in which Serbia has opened its accession negotiations (chapter 5 on Public procurement, negotiations started end of 2016 and Commission’s Report says there was no progress).

It seems that Serbia missed the opportunity that was announced in 2018 by the EC’s Communication on credible enlargement. The momentum to reciprocate credibility with unequivocal engagement in re-setting its political system and returning to the principles of dialogue and respect of democratic institutions was simply not recognized.

Perhaps being enchanted by the call of 2025, Serbia failed to recognize immediate challenges for its democratic legitimization. Instead of pushing full power forward, finally living up to the slogan and “doing it for ourselves”, Serbia is underperforming.

It behaves like a potentially most successful student in the class, with a clear prospect of bright future, but failing to achieve that being preoccupied with constant complaining about the fairness of the teacher and lack of appreciation of fellow students. It is becoming too obvious that Serbia’s EU integration process is being internally delayed. The complexity of the situation with Pristina is one of the reasons but should not be an excuse for not nominating a new candidate for the vacant position of Commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, or more efficient fight against corruption, or improvement of public procurement rules. Unfortunately, lack of democratic capacity in current political setting paralyzes smart initiatives, everyday work of institutions, evidence-based policy-making and potential to advance that still exists (although is becoming thinner due to emigration flows).

Country Report 2019 is a wake-up call. Years before us will bring new challenges and new composition of the European Commission and position of EU Member States with regards to the EU’s enlargement policy will seriously challenge Serbia’s political will and stamina to change into a better, rule of law regulated democratic society. After this year’s Report, Serbia needs to reflect and recognize new opportunity to re-think, re-set and re-start its EU accession agenda.