European Western Balkans

Slow but steady

David McAllister; Photo: European Union

Serbia is well on its way towards fulfilling the EU membership criteria. Yes, more reforms are necessary, but as long as Serbia moves forward, steadily and consistently, we ought to acknowledge and support every step towards our united European future.

During my last trip to Belgrade in August, I noticed that the country is making steady progress in implementing its ambitious political, legal and economic reform agenda. For example, Serbia has adopted a comprehensive public financial management reform programme as well as important laws relating to regulatory reform, public salaries and administrative procedures. It has developed strategies on e-government, harmonised its jurisprudence and continues to promote a merit-based recruitment system. Progress has also been visible in economic terms. By reducing its budget deficit and restructuring publicly-owned enterprises, Serbia has managed to reduce its domestic and external imbalances. According to the World Bank, Serbia’s economy is expected to grow by 3% this year.

However, more efforts are needed to ensure freedom of expression, protection of minorities, the quality of the judiciary, access to justice, anti-corruption measures and the inclusion of civil society in the accession process. In order to progress further on its path toward EU integration, Serbia should prioritise efforts in these areas and demonstrate concrete achievements. The EU, in turn, needs to remain engaged in the country and the whole Western Balkan region and offer its support whenever it is needed. This is not about imposing our own solutions, it is about listening and advancing together.

The EU is already by far the most important donor of non-refundable assistance to Serbia.  It is currently engaged in some 600 EU projects to support the country’s reform and development agenda and assist in preparations for EU membership. Many of these projects offer very concrete benefits for the society – from providing hospital equipment and building kindergartens to supporting innovative companies and assisting in the fight against corruption. Yet, such projects can only reach their full potential and translate into public support for the EU and the accession process, if they are made visible across the country. We are all called to communicate more effectively about the extent and the concrete benefits of EU engagement in the country.

In a region that continues to be characterized by ethnic tensions and divisions, good neighbourly relations are a fundamental condition to bring about the political stability needed for EU integration. This is why we ought to ensure that the current EU-sponsored Pristina-Belgrade dialogue moves forward and helps resolve unsettled conflicts between Kosovo and Serbia.

EU membership aspirations will only deliver results if fundamental reforms are carried out. EU enlargement is a long-term process. The legal and structural reforms and bilateral negotiations required to meet the Copenhagen criteria cannot be completed overnight.

Hence, I remain convinced that every small step on the European path will eventually lead to stability and security in the Western Balkans. This is why we must keep the EU membership perspective alive and work closely together to ensure our shared vision of a common European future will become a reality one day.

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