Serbia’s Challenging Journey to the EU: Reforms Required for Membership

Serbia’s EU accession odyssey started with the democratic breakthrough of 2000, which brought down the 90s’ authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milosevic. The confirmation of its European perspective came at the Thessaloniki Summit of 2003, alongside other Western Balkan neighbours. The country started its democratic transition after a decade of war, total collapse of the economy, international isolation, and sanctions. Starting from such a low point, and despite internal political struggles which led to the assassination of the first democratic prime minister Zoran Djindjic in April 2003, by 2008, Serbia signed the ‘Stabilisation and Association Agreement’ with the EU. In 2012 it became a candidate for EU membership, which was followed by the opening of accession negotiations in 2014.

Soon after, however, its EU path started to stumble. Since 2016, Serbia’s overall level of preparedness for membership has remained stagnant, with a moderate rating of 3 on the 5-point scale that the European Commission uses in its annual assessment reports. Consequently, Serbia has opened 22 out of 33 negotiated negotiation chapters to date, having provisionally closed only 2. Since December 2021, there has been no progress in the negotiations. Improvements have been in short supply across all chapters, and the transformation of the country into a future EU member is all but evident.

At the same time, the past two years have seen an awakening of political motivation for enlargement in the EU – mainly prompted by Russia’s aggression on Ukraine and the realisation that enlargement remains the best policy to fend off external malign influences in the EU’s vicinity. The Commission proposed in November 2022 the New growth plan for the Western Balkans – set to step up the region’s integration with the internal market and augment investments into its socio-economic convergence with the EU. Against the backdrop of the current enlargement momentum, this article explores the reasons behind the slowdown in Serbia’s accession process and discusses the main reforms and political actions needed for its acceleration.

Main sources of Serbia’s EU accession slowdown

There are three main factors behind Serbia’s poor performance in EU accession negotiations in recent years: 1) lack of reforms in the fundamental reform areas, 2) reluctance to align with the EU’s sanctions policy towards Russia and 3) poor implementation of agreements in the normalisation of relations with Kosovo. This section discusses each of the three factors.

Serbia’s track record in the implementation of reforms designated as “fundamental” in the EU accession process has been sluggish at best over the past years. The “fundamentals first” approach in the accession process dictates that the overall pace of accession negotiations depends on the progress in improving the rule of law (chapters 23 and 24), functioning of democratic institutions, public administration reform, economic reforms and other chapters grouped in Cluster 1 – Fundamentals.[1] In line with the 2020 Revised Enlargement Methodology, this cluster is the first one to be opened and the last to be closed (chapter by chapter), which allows the assessments in these areas and chapters to shape negotiations until the very end. However, Serbia’s membership preparedness assessment in Cluster 1 has improved marginally since 2016, marking a certain degree of progress in economic reforms only. Namely, the functioning of market economy and capacity to withstand the competitive pressures of the single market have unimpressively improved from the grade 3.0 to 3.5 in the past seven years. The rest of the fundamentals have remained largely stagnant in this long period, seeing only sporadic and limited marks of progress. Arguably, the ‘functioning of democratic institutions’ sub-area has in fact been regressing,[2] leading to the country’s downgrading from a ‘semi-consolidated democracy’ to a ‘hybrid regime’ in the renowned Freedom House “Nations in Transit” reports.[3] In December 2021, despite limited progress in fundamental reform areas, the EU agreed to open Cluster 4 – Green agenda and sustainable connectivity – the last one Serbia has opened in its accession talks. Overall, the developments in fundamental reforms have fallen short of underpinning a more dynamic accession process for Serbia.

Furthermore, since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, another stumbling block in Serbia’s progress towards EU membership has stemmed from its reluctance to align with the EU’s sanctions policy towards the aggressor. Despite the formal requirement to progressively align with the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) of the EU until membership, the war brought this policy to the forefront of the accession process. It has thus resulted in strong pressure on candidates to fully align and show political commitment to the EU’s stance on this internationally divisive issue. Serbia’s consistent voting with the EU on the United Nations’ resolutions relating to the war has been insufficient to demonstrate such resolve. Although Serbia has managed to improve alignment with CFSP decisions unrelated to Russia, its rejection of the sanctions policy has prevented its overall progress in the respective Chapter 31. The problem has been exacerbated by anti-European and pro-Russian political discourse fuelled by both senior government officials and pro-government media outlets. The 2022 Serbia Report thus identified backsliding in this chapter (the only chapter to ever register backsliding since the start of negotiations), while the 2023 Report marked ‘no progress’. Political pressures on Serbia to accept the EU’s sanctions policy have been building over the past two years, leading numerous member states to openly question Serbia’s political commitment to EU integration.

Finally, the process of normalising the relationship with its breakaway province Kosovo has become the third major obstacle in Serbia’s progress towards membership. This process, monitored as part of Chapter 35 – Other – has ‘blocking’ power in Serbia’s accession talks, and Serbia is expected to constructively engage in dialogue with Kosovo and implement all agreements achieved in the process. Early 2022 seemed to offer a breakthrough, when leaders of Kosovo and Serbia verbally accepted the ‘Ohrid Agreement’ – the EU’s proposal on normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two sides. Yet, the dialogue has been plagued with obstructions as well as divisive and hateful political discourse in both Serbia and Kosovo, culminating in a violent ‘Banjska’ incident in North Kosovo led by Serb militants in late 2022, leaving one Kosovar police officer and three attackers dead. This clash, dubbed by several observers a terrorist attack, has led the EU to increase pressures on Serbia to fully commit to the implementation of agreements reached to date and to work towards full normalisation of relations as a key precondition for further advancement of the EU accession process.  

Unpacking reforms towards membership

To further its path towards EU membership, Serbia is expected to deliver actions and reforms in all of the discussed areas, as well as advance in alignment and implementation of the EU law across all negotiated sectoral policy areas. The Commission offers specific recommendations for improvements in each of the areas and chapters of accession negotiations, many of which have been repeated over the last few years marked by poor progress. Without going into the details of recommendations in each of the 33 negotiated chapters and several sub-areas of Cluster 1, it is worth examining the key steps expected in the coming period, reiterated in the Commission’s 2023 report on Serbia.

First of all, following the ‘fundamentals first’ policy, Serbia will need to ensure a strong track record of reforms in Cluster 1. Starting with the rule-of-law chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights), further reforms need to improve the independence and functioning of the judiciary, ensuring adequate implementation of the 2022 constitutional amendments and ensuing legislation in this area. Moreover, fight against corruption needs to improve significantly, ensuring real results in prosecuting high-level corruption cases. Freedom of expression is another area under Chapter 23 which needs significant improvement, particularly in relation to the protection of journalists and media pluralism. Continuing with Chapter 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security), Serbia needs to improve the operational autonomy of the police, better manage migration and asylum procedures and step up the fight against human trafficking and organised crime. Improvements are also necessary in the chapters and areas with more positive assessments of preparedness: public procurement, financial control, statistics, public administration reform and economic reforms. Importantly, the highly contested legitimacy of the December 2023 elections will likely spark heightened interest in the ‘functioning of democratic institutions’ area and lead to stronger calls by the EU to Serbian authorities to improve the basic democratic traits of the governance system. Ensuring progress across the entire Cluster 1 will thus continue to dictate the overall pace of accession negotiations, while a lack of reforms will surely lead to further stagnation.

Moreover, going forward, one can reasonably expect the EU to insist more vehemently that Serbia aligns with the CFSP, particularly regarding its sanctions policy vis-à-vis Russia. Not only will the government need to adopt and apply the restrictive measures, but it will also be under scrutiny regarding measures taken to avoid circumventing of sanctions on the Serbian territory and those preventing foreign interference and information manipulation. The EU will expect Serbia to unequivocally demonstrate that it stands with it in the ongoing war and extend its formal support beyond the votes in the UN. Considering the historically strong political – and, to an extent, economic – ties between Serbia and Russia, meeting this condition will require political courage and a change of pro-Russian and anti-Western rhetoric in the country. Failing to achieve these objectives, the political tension between Serbia and the EU – particularly the member states on the eastern flank of the Union – will likely increase, preventing any meaningful progress in Serbia’s membership negotiations.

Finally, on the Kosovo issue Serbia is likely to come under the highest pressure from the EU in the coming period, focused on the implementation of the EU-brokered Ohrid Agreement and its implementation annex. The Agreement requires that Serbia, among other things, recognises Kosovo’s official documents and national symbols (including passports, diplomas, licence plates and customs stamps), respects the aims and principles of the UN Charter related to sovereign equality of all states, peacefully settles disputes with Kosovo and ends is policy of objecting to Kosovo’s membership in international organisations. Moreover, its first provision insists on the development of normal good-neighbourly relations on the basis of equal rights. While in the short run the main emphasis will likely be on the implementation of the formal recognition actions (such as those related to state symbols), in the longer run Serbia’s political leadership will be expected to change its inflammatory political discourse towards Kosovo. A more reconciliatory political messaging will be essential to prepare the Serbian population for peaceful coexistence with their Kosovar neighbours and achieve full normalisation of relations.

Key questions going forward

The EU’s reignited interest and support to enlargement will only deliver results if it is met with equal enthusiasm in candidate countries to press on with reforms and solve outstanding political issues on their accession agendas. Considering that the source of this renewed interest lies in the continent’s East rather than South-East, the window of opportunity for the Western Balkans may indeed be a short one. Following hundreds of meetings and events with EU officials, experts, and academics, this author is convinced that the EU is eager to see a Serbia committed to reforms, sharing its foreign policy vision, and taking big steps towards meeting membership conditions. The largest economy in the Western Balkans, crucial for regional stability, would make for a perfect success story of enlargement – once deemed the most successful EU policy. As the EU is rethinking its enlargement policy in order to make it more incentivising – in line with the ‘gradual’ or ‘staged’ logic,[4] Serbia stands to benefit greatly from its accession process through increased funding, deeper market integration and potentially higher participation in the work of EU institutions. The key question, therefore, appears to be if the Serbian authorities are willing and prepared to take the necessary actions to advance the EU integration of their country. The statements of EU’s political leaders still suggest a belief that the present regime in Serbia might deliver on its verbal commitments. However, numerous experts and academics, as well as much of Serbia’s civil society, maintain that a deeper political change will be needed for Serbia to return to a genuine pro-European reform mentality.

At the start of 2024, the country is poised for more of ‘business as usual’ on all three key issues discussed in this article. Firstly, although a new government is yet to be formed following the parliamentary election of 17 December 2023, the main political force, personified in President Aleksandar Vucic, will remain in place, with an absolute majority in the parliament. The image of the election day, plagued with irregularities, does little to suggest a more democratic behaviour of the leading political party and reinforces abundant allegations of state capture and blatant disregard for the rule of law. Secondly, although the new government may take steps to distance Serbia from Putin’s Russia, there are no indications that the President will opt for the introduction of sanctions which have a particularly negative image among the Serbian population. Finally, the continuing inter-ethnic tensions and hateful political rhetoric bear little hope for the advancement of the normalisation of relations and reconciliation with Kosovo. Thus, despite the new carrots dangling on the accession path to the EU, the year 2024 begins with little hope for an acceleration of Serbia’s membership bid.

This article was written for and initially published in Vanguardia Dossier, a Spanish-language magazine known for its in-depth coverage of cultural, social, and political issues. It offers analysis and commentary from a wide range of experts across Europe.

[1] Those are Chapter 5 – Public procurement, Chapter 18 – Statistics, and Chapter 32 – Financial control.

[2] Although it is clearly recognised as part of the ‘Fundamentals’, this area is the only one for which the Commission does not provide the final marks of progress and membership preparedness. For the time being, the Commission only provides a descriptive analysis of the developments in this wide area. In 2023, CEP produced a series of policy papers identifying the deficiencies in the Commission’s current approach and offering methodological recommendations for the introduction of membership preparedness assessments using the standard 5-point scale. See:  

[3] Serbia was downgraded in the 2020 report and has remained in this category ever since. Countries receiving this score are typically electoral democracies where democratic institutions are fragile, and substantial challenges to the protection of political rights and civil liberties exist. See:

[4] A notable proposal for reforming the enlargement policy is laid out in Template 2.0 for Staged Accession to the EU, European Policy Centre – CEP and Centre for European Policy Studies – CEPS, August 2022,