What are the main challenges and milestones Serbia needs to overcome on its path to the full-fledged membership?
People are under impression that Serbia is stuck on its EU accession path. Is that true and why are we under such an impression?
Perception is a matter of subjective judgment, and as such is often not based on factual information. In fact, since the beginning of the negotiation process, Serbia has made progress in all reform areas. Our progress should not be solely weighted by the number of open chapters, but rather by the transformation of society that occurs as a result of the reform process – the reform of the economy, energy, environment, agriculture, and especially the rule of law. All these reforms are also prerequisites for progress in the accession negotiations but are primarily conducted in the best interest of citizens, their living standards, and legal security.
However, the negotiation process cannot be viewed one-dimensionally. In addition to the reform dimension, which could be subsumed under the technical part of the process, the political dimension of negotiations has always been present and often dominant. It is this dimension, which is sometimes less and sometimes more obvious, that gives the impression of “stuckness” on the EU path. Since the start of our accession negotiations with the EU, we have accepted that any progress made or the possibility of opening new accession chapters is viewed on the back of previously achieved progress in the rule of law and in the dialogue on the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. Additionally, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, there is also a request to fully comply with the EU’s foreign and security policy at a faster pace. The complexity of this issue and our position is very clear, but the impression is that the reform part of the process, especially in the area of the rule of law, is overshadowed.
Since the beginning of the negotiation process, Serbia has made progress in all reform areas
How realistic is the threat that Serbia’s integration into the EU will be suspended if Serbia does not accept the agreement with Pristina?
From the very beginning of the dialogue on the normalization of relations (with Pristina), Serbia was truly committed to this process and was often the only constructive party. Looking back, we fulfilled almost all the obligations that arose from the dialogue with Pristina in good faith, and all for the sake of normalizing the relations, that is, to create conditions for people to have a normal life. On the other hand, Pristina has continually failed to comply with its obligations.
Back then, and recently in Ohrid, our officials clearly highlighted our so-called red lines. The EU intends to integrate the content of this political agreement into transitional measures, more specifically in the negotiation chapter 35. Let me remind you that since 2014 it has been defined that this chapter, specific to Serbia, through which progress in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is monitored, is important for the overall evaluation of the progress Serbia makes in the accession negotiations, i.e. that what is evaluated here are the accomplished milestones related to previous agreements. According to their announcements, the new agreements will most likely be incorporated into those transitional measures, which will, of course, be done by the EU by early May. They will inform us about the changes they made because that is exactly the procedure in the negotiation process. These changes can help to a significant extent because they will determine the limits of the responsibility for the progress of both sides and restate that progress has not been made for a long time precisely because Pristina has been avoiding the formation of the Community of Serb Municipalities for ten years.
What is the current mood in Serbian society regarding the European integration process? Do you believe that most people would vote “yes” for the EU accession if a referendum were to be held today?
A week ago, I was in Skopje and I talked with my colleague, the Deputy Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Mister Bojan Maričić, about the declining support for the European integration process in our societies. This is not a trend only in Serbia, but in the entire Western Balkans as well, because the process takes a long time and citizens very often do not see the exact benefits of it. It is quite clear that the support for membership is not that high, but most people in Serbia still hold the idea of our country joining the EU quite close. I would like to remind you that the biggest support for membership was when the EU abolished visas for Serbian citizens to enter the Schengen area. Then the citizens felt not only the direct benefit of Serbia’s approach to the EU but also that they belong to a community of European citizens with whom they share the same values. And that is exactly the way we communicate with citizens today, i.e. by presenting the direct benefits for them personally and for the state in the process of European accession, which is very important before the accession takes place.
Of course, the attitude towards this topic today is very much affected by the global events caused by the war in Ukraine, as well as our attitude towards imposing sanctions against Russia. The fact that, up to the beginning of this crisis, the enlargement policy was on the back burner, with the EU intending first to reform itself and only then to consider taking in new member states, also plays a role. In public opinion polls, all these issues are clearly reflected in the views of citizens. What, I think, is perhaps more important at this moment than the support for the membership itself, is the citizens’ support for reforms during the accession process, which is still very high. Of the total number of poll respondents, two-thirds believe that the reforms necessary for our country’s entry into the EU should be implemented regardless of the accession, for the benefit of the citizens and the creation of a better and more orderly Serbia. And it is this reservoir of support that we count on in the accession process.
What are the current activities in the accession process? How many chapters have been opened and what has been done so far?
So far, we have opened 22 chapters, and we temporarily closed those related to education, culture and youth, and science and research. This means that in those areas we have reached the required progress in reforms to embark on the negotiations at all. We are working very hard on all chapters which include transitional measures, that is, those that lead us deeper into the process of amending regulations and their implementation per European standards. Judicial reform, for example, entered the phase of implementation of new laws, passed after the Constitution was amended. This ensures a high degree of independence for judges and prosecutors in the way they are selected and allows for faster and more efficient proceedings. Amendments to media laws are also being drafted to expedite the implementation of the Media Strategy. The goal of these regulations is to additionally ensure the professional operations of the media and the safety of journalists, but also that the citizens are truthfully and timely informed.
A new Anti-Corruption Strategy is being developed, which is based on the belief of zero tolerance for corruption, and will focus on prevention, on the one hand, and more effective punishment for criminal acts related to corruption, on the other. The strategic segment of reforms in the energy sector, aimed at diversifying the supply of energy, including those from renewable sources, is particularly important to us. An accompanying, important, and extensive area is the policy of environmental protection and the fight against climate change, but also boosting our agriculture, all with the help of substantial EU funds. I always point out that, apart from financial aid, the transfer of know-how and experience in various segments, which we also receive from European partners, is of crucial importance.
We fulfilled almost all the obligations that arose from the dialogue with Pristina in good faith
What’s next for us?
Our further formal progress in the negotiations depends, of course, on the member states’ assessment of the extent to which Serbia ensures the rule of law. This is where the half-yearly report with the European Commission’s assessment, which we expect to be revealed in May, is crucial. As I already stated, our alignment with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy is one of the burning questions at the time, but I have to outline that it is not measured only by the percentage of EU decisions that Serbia has complied with, but also, in our opinion, by everything that Serbia is doing to help Ukraine restore its destroyed energy system through the EU Mechanism for Civil Protection. We are the only country in the region that has given this kind of aid so far. We have also done a lot to align with the European visa policy towards third countries, which contributed to reducing the pressure of illegal migration on EU Member States. We should not count out Serbia’s participation in EU peacekeeping missions, which exceeds the contribution of all other candidate countries in terms of the number and scope of participation. I don’t know if that will be enough to open the next cluster of accession chapters in June, but I know that Serbia’s unequivocal commitment to treating EU membership as our strategic priority, along with the coordination of all our policies, leads to that direction.
Why is it important for Serbia to be part of the European family and is there an alternative in the form of a different association with the EU?
In the first two months of this year alone, trade with the EU accounted for almost 60 percent of our total external trade. In 2022, trade with EU Member States accounted for 58.7% of total trade. Therefore, the EU is not only the biggest donor of development aid to Serbia, but above all, it is our biggest trade partner. The largest foreign investments in Serbia were made by EU Member States. Serbia’s economic interest here is clear and this is coupled with the fact that we share the same value system and understanding of our society’s development with the EU.
The key framework for our accession and inclusion in the EU internal market is primarily the Stabilization and Association Agreement, which Serbia concluded 15 years ago, thanks to which the trade with the EU has been fully liberalized in early 2014. Also, this agreement is the legal basis for the strengthening of cooperation between Serbia and the EU and it establishes the obligation for Serbia to harmonize its national legislation with the Union’s legal acquis until the agreed deadlines. It also defines that bilateral cooperation with neighboring countries is one of our main principles and obligations. It is important to underline that regional cooperation is not only our obligation stemming from that document but also one of the priorities of Serbia’s official policy. This shows that we are committed to regional peace, boosting neighborly relations, and cooperating under the auspices of the CEFTA.
In short, Serbia has its own strategic goal, which is equal membership in the European Union. And the most efficient fulfillment of all obligations stemming from the Stabilization and Association Agreement is the way to achieve that goal.
Serbia has its own strategic goal, which is equal membership in the European Union
Are we required to join NATO to become an EU member?
There is no such condition – not all EU members are also NATO members, and some are only now in the process of joining, while some are not even considering that possibility.
Both Serbia and the EU countries think that the bureaucracy in the Union has become a great burden, as well as that countries are losing their sovereignty. What are your views on this matter?
Brexit has shown how much this topic has influenced public opinion and how difficult it is even for the EU itself to cope with the fact that the public impression of the success of this, the largest successful peace project in modern history, fits real results. How the EU institutions, following their competencies, manage to develop public policies in the EU and thereby contribute to a high standard of living and civil rights is certainly in disproportion with the public perception of the “Brussels bureaucracy”. Often, this image is more negative even in the member states themselves, than in the countries outside the EU. After all, the Union’s institutions rely on the member states in both making and implementing their policies, and the most important decisions are made by consensus of all member states. The key role that member states have is one of the most important arguments for why full-fledged membership in that community is important. At the same time, it proves that the members, not the bureaucracy, are the owners of the European integration process.