No Progress Made
Serbia has made no progress in the European integration process since May 2019, says the latest annual progress report the European Commission (EC) released on Oct. 6 as part of the 2020 Enlargement Package. The key message to Belgrade is that the pace of accession negotiations with the European Union (EU) depends on the progress Serbia makes in solidifying the rule of law and normalizing relations with Kosovo. Serbia is also expected to alter the anti-European rhetoric that has reduced support to a national strategy to join the EU, especially among young people.
The report makes it very clear that the accession talks can be suspended any time, if the Union finds out that Serbia’s progress in the negotiating chapters 23, 24 and 35 (Judiciary and fundamental rights, Justice, Freedom and Security and, for Serbia, the relationship with Kosovo) is not balanced well with the progress the country has made in other negotiating areas. In a word, Serbia has apparently missed a chance to ride ahead together with Montenegro, and join the EU before the rest of the region.
Compared to the status of three key segments in last year’s EC report published in May 2019, Serbia’s compliance with political criteria was ranked 2.2. on a scale of one to five, gauging a country’s preparedness to join the Union. On the economic criteria, Serbia has moved up from 3.0 to 3.25, and on the legal criteria, related to 35 negotiating chapters, the country went up from 3.0 to 3.03. Serbia has failed to make a breakthrough in any of them.
Functioning of democracy
A new methodology for the EU accession negotiations that was adopted in March produced new obligations as well. The functioning of democratic institutions is a criterion against which all states in the accession process will be regularly assessed. Relevant international organizations say that it’s precisely in this field that Serbia has recorded a constant decline for a few years already.
For instance, the Freedom House noted in a report that back in 2014, when the accession negotiations were opened for Serbia, the country was in the category of “free countries” and “semi-consolidated democracies,” while in May 2020 it was described as a “partly free” state falling into the category of “hybrid regimes.” The term denotes the states that can carry out political repression and call elections at the same time, where democratic institutions are fragile, while there are considerable challenges to defending political rights and civic freedoms.
The Reporters Without Borders ranked Serbia 93 out of 180 states included in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. As opposed to the group of problematic states Serbia belongs to now, it was 54thin 2014. According to a vice-president of the European Movement in Serbia, Vladimir Medjak, “instead of making progress and coming closer to the EU parameters, Serbia has joined the trends in the member states the Union has issues with and is trying to straighten their act.”
Following an assessment that even though verbally committed to EU membership, the authorities in Serbia have been running an anti-European campaign in practice, Serbia has been given another benchmark against which Brussels will evaluate its readiness to join the Union – the way Serbia’s highest-ranking officials speak about the Union. The report says there’s “an overall need to place more emphasis on objective and unambiguous positive communication on the EU, which is Serbia’s main political and economic partner.”
It’s a consequence of Serbia’s anti-EU campaign and a negative rhetoric used regularly by pro-government media, tabloid newspapers in the first place, but also by nationwide TV networks that is believed to have led to a decline in support to Serbia’s EU membership, strengthening anti-European feelings among young people as well. Polls show that largely neutral or negative rhetoric on the EU has been used. Experts have pointed out that the state possesses instruments it could use to react, but never did. For example, the Parliament of Serbia accepted in 2014 to hold biannual debates on the EU, but has held none.
Freezing the accession talks
The new EU accession methodology allows for reversibility in the negotiation process if it is clear that no progress has been made. “A balance clause” has existed in the EU negotiating framework from the start, but the novelty is that the balance is now evaluated. There is a possibility to freeze negotiations if imbalances occur between the level of progress made in the Chapters 23, 24 and 35 and the overall alignment process, at the initiative of the European Commission or one-third of the EU members.
In this year’s report on Serbia, the EC says that “an overall balance is currently ensured between progress under the rule of law and normalization, on the one side, and progress in the negotiations across chapters, on the other side.“ This has been interpreted as a warning that perhaps at some point in the future this may not be the case.
Kosovo and the rule of law
The EC has sent a clear message to Serbia that the pace of progress in the accession process depends directly on progress made in the rule of law and normalization of relations with Kosovo (Chapters 23, 24 and 35). The Commission said that Serbia had demonstrated “commitment and engagement” in a restored dialogue with Kosovo, but that “Serbia needs to make further substantial efforts and contribute to reaching a comprehensive legally binding agreement with Kosovo.” Such an agreement is urgent and crucial so that Kosovo and Serbia can advance on their respective European paths, the EC says in the report, adding that Serbia should also continue to support and carry out all earlier agreements on the dialogue.
Experts say that “even if the Kosovo issue is resolved tomorrow” the rule of law remains a very serious problem. The EC said that the progress in the rule of law is not “as fast and effective as one would expect from a state that entered the accession negotiations,” adding that Serbia needs to urgently accelerate and deepen reforms, especially to strengthen the independence of judiciary, fight against corruption, the freedom of the media, as well as those to boost processing of war crimes and fight organized crime.
The European Movement in Serbia’s vice-president, Vladimir Medjak, says that in its report the EC “has repeatedly reminded Serbia that it needs to deal promptly with organized criminal groups with international reach.” The Commission is also “concerned about a large number of officials in the state administration that are in an ‘acting status’, and have not been appointed on merit or because of admirable resumes, while the capacity of the state administration, praised for years, has been challenged as well.”
Another problem is the harmonization of national legislation, as 59 percent of it is yet to be aligned with the EU. Moreover, the laws that have been passed are either not implemented, or have been derogated. For example, Serbia passed a new Public Procurement Act that was described as a step in the right direction, but shortly after it passed a Linear Infrastructure Act, excluding from the former major infrastructure projects – roads and railways. The EC has warned in its report that this can open the doors to high corruption, describing the law as one bypassing the Union’s public procurement rules, Medjak says.
Independence of judiciary
The Commission warned in the report that the constitutional reform of the judiciary was put on hold until after the 2020 parliamentary elections, which delayed the adoption of judicial legislation supposed to increase safeguards for judicial independence. “The scope for continued political influence over the judiciary under the current legislation is a serious concern,” the EC cautioned.
When it comes to judicial independence, both North Macedonia and Albania, which are yet to open negotiations with the EU, fare better than Serbia now, as they have made serious breakthroughs in fighting high corruption. Serbia was made very clear that to prove success in this area it takes “a highest-level corruption case.” A recent arrest of the agriculture minister’s assistant on corruption charges might not be the level requested, but sources say that it might be a signal that “a contest is on for a Serbian Sanader,” Croatia’s former prime minister charged with corruption.
Pluralism in Parliament, election process
The Commission noted in the report that Serbia had made no progress in terms of electoral processes either, warning at serious flaws in the work of the Parliament as well. “The newly constituted Serbian parliament is marked by the overwhelming majority of the ruling coalition and the absence of a viable opposition, a situation which is not conducive to political pluralism in the country,” the Commission says.
Serbia is also criticized for having or passing legislation upholding fundamental rights, but not implementing it. A media strategy has been passed, but not implemented, while no progress has been made in improving the overall environment for freedom of expression. There are still reports of the cases of threats, intimidation and violence against journalists, while the transparency of media ownership and of allocation of public funds, at local levels in particular, is yet to be ensured, the EC noted in the report. Another observation by the Commission is that most TV channels with national coverage and newspapers promoted government policies during the electoral campaign, whereas few media outlets that offered alternative views had a limited reach.
The EC’s report and recommendations also suggest that Serbia’s alignment with the EU foreign policy was still on a low level.