What does acceptance of the new accession methodology mean for Serbia?

Serbia’s announced acceptance of the new methodology for joining the European Union means that it has finally come to recognise the “spirit of the moment” in which the EU finds itself, as well as the interests of the member states that supported the change of the existing methodology (at the initiative of France) in order to reach consensus. It is important to note that the arrival of the French initiative comes at a time when France, along with Germany, is profiling itself as a leading country that will play a significant role in the continuation of dialogue on the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Priština.

The new methodology should make the process of accession to the European Union more credible, predictable, dynamic, and politically driven as opposed to what was previously considered a “technocratic” process of meeting certain EU technical requirements and standards. Candidates are now required to be credible in terms of their sincere commitment to the fight against corruption, respect for rule of law, ensuring the proper functioning of democratic institutions and public administration, harmonisation with EU common foreign policy instruments, and strengthening regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations.

The new methodology explicitly requires candidates to publicly demonstrate a clear political commitment to EU membership during the accession process. It is obvious that the new Serbian government will have to work on articulating and coordinating messages (towards the domestic and foreign publics), as well as in public appearances of its ministers, as in the previous convocation there were many dissonant voices regarding the EU, European integration, and relations with other international partners.

The new methodology also mentions the possibilities of suspending negotiations, rewarding successful candidates, and sanctioning those who do not progress at the expected pace (or regress); a stronger role for the Stabilization and Association Agreement implementation bodies in accession negotiations, and; the inclusion of candidate countries in official EU forums at various levels, from ministerial meetings to meetings of heads of state and governments. All these elements (with possible minor adjustments) should not be anything particularly new for Serbia, since most of them are already contained in the current negotiating framework, or are already part of the existing institutions and procedures for monitoring the implementation of the SAA.

The new methodology could bring positive changes to current practices of conducting accession negotiations by placing more emphasis on political leadership and more precisely locating those responsible for delays in the implementation of the undertaken obligations. In any case, political leaders are expected to engage more directly in the negotiation process, to explain to citizens why changes are necessary, and to take responsibility for their implementation during accession to the EU.

Will the process of opening new chapters change?

Perhaps the largest change introduced by the new methodology is its attempt to group related negotiating chapters into six units, so-called “clusters”. The essence of this new approach is that key sectors to address the EU accession process should be more strongly emphasised instead of individual chapters, thus establishing a framework for political dialogue and the engagement of political leaders.

The first cluster is the most important and deals with the “Fundamentals”, which include criteria regarding politics, democratic institutions, economics, and public administration reform, the economic criterion, public administration reform, as well as chapters dedicated to rule of law, public procurement, financial control, and statistics. This cluster will have a special role in the further course of accession negotiations because the overall course of negotiations will depend on the fulfilment of the obligations undertaken in this cluster. Taking into account that Serbia has opened the mentioned chapters in the course of its negotiations so far, it can be considered that this entire cluster has already been opened.

However, if Serbia does not fulfil its obligations in this area in time, it is possible that the European Commission or member states will request the suspension of negotiations. While the suspension of negotiations was also included as an option in the old methodology, the way, the way of reaching decisions on suspension is now simplified, and based on the decision of the so-called “reverse qualified majority”. Another change is that the eventual reopening of this cluster will be more complicated and time-consuming as compared to the existing practice.

Taking into account the current course of Serbia’s negotiations with the EU, it remains to be seen how the remaining clusters dealing with the common market (Serbia has opened 4 out of 9 chapters), economic competitiveness and inclusive growth (Serbia has opened 5 out of 8 chapters), the green agenda and sustainable connectivity (Serbia has opened 0 out of 4 chapters), resources, agriculture, and cohesion (Serbia has opened 2 out of 5 chapters), and external relations (Serbia has opened 1 out of 2 chapters) will be opened.

In any case, grouping chapters should allow for stronger focuses on key sectoral reforms, and should improve the strategic planning of sectoral policies. This should influence the interest and responsibility of political leaders to become more strongly involved in strategic planning within the process of EU accession, and thus taking “ownership” of the process. At the same time, this approach should provide citizens with a clearer overview of the progress made and the logic of accession negotiations as compared to the previous “counting” of open chapters.

Does Serbia gain from this change?

This question is not simple and needs to be answered from several points of view. From the point of view of the citizens of Serbia, it is assumed that the accession process will gain credibility and that citizens’ trust in the European integration process will be restored. By requiring the political responsibility of competent state bodies for the implementation of key reforms, citizens will gain insight into the sincerity of the government’s intentions to address existing problems. At the same time, I expect that the effects of these changes should be more visible to citizens.

From the point of view of the Serbian government, the adoption of the new methodology could represent a new chance. Namely, the course of accession negotiations so far has not significantly contributed to the motivation of state bodies to make the maximum effort to bring about necessary changes. Negotiations were mainly viewed from the perspective of opening negotiation chapters, which was not too interesting for most citizens. Unfortunately, even political leaders have not shown sufficient interest in bringing about the changes that are preconditions for EU membership, given the uncertainty of the process and the impossibility of achieving concrete political gains in the short term.

No methodology can compensate for the general lack of political will. Serbia lagged behind and is not in the position to self-righteously call itself the “leader of the region” when in reality it has serious and structural problems regarding the state of democracy, rule of law, media freedoms, and the fight against corruption in its borders. If there is enough political will or interest in the coming period, the new methodology could help to bring about a better designed, realistic, and structured approach to internal change and negotiations with the EU.