European Western Balkans

Serbian EU accession on a side track

Vučić takes the oath in the Serbian parliament; Photo: Tanjug/Rade Prelic

The former Croatian PM Jadranka Kosor, who concluded the accession negotiations and brought the country to the EU doorstep, tweeted “If this had happened in 2011, we would never close the Chapter 23 and conclude the negotiations for accession to the EU”, referring to the Agrokor affair which shakes the Croatian political scene. The promulgation of Agrokor lex specialis aims to protect the former market imperium from utmost collapse. Notwithstanding, four years since joining the EU, fulfilment of Union’s legal principles is at stake.

The legality of lex specialis and political pressure have reminded (at least the former Croatian PM) on the EU scrutiny regarding the Chapter 23 criteria. The Chapter covers the area of the judiciary, anti-corruption, fundamental rights, and rights of EU citizens. Furthermore, it is, along with the Chapter 24, the most demanding and indeed the most significant part of acquis. Hence, legal protection, access to court, fair trial, protection of human and fundamental rights, as well as the fight against corruption, lie in the heart of idea of l’état de droit.

As a community based on the rule of law, it is thus of foremost necessity for the EU candidate country to implement these standards. Serbia has opened Chapters 23 and 24 in June 2016 whilst the former PM Vučić vigorously claimed that “This is an extremely big and important day for Serbia because it shows our strategic path, our commitment to the reforms that are ahead”. Albeit the political consensus on EU path is basically not an issue, Serbian accession to the EU with regard to the Chapter 23 is starkly on a side track. The cutting edge in this sense surely prevails in the area of the judicial system and legal protection.

One affair after another succeeds in jeopardizing fundamental rights and freedoms. A whole series of indicative cases shows the overt interference of executive branch in the independent work of judicial system, breaching the milestone of democracy – separation of powers.

The Savamala case escalated just a few months before the opening of Chapter 23. The night demolition of parts of Savamala district and the absence of police reaction caused a series of protests. Scarce explanation given by the PM Vučić saying that “whoever did it, that one is a complete idiot”, has been followed by numerous statements of the Minister of Interior and other high officials making a direct political pressure on Prosecutor’s Office. The case hasn’t been investigated yet, despite being noted in the Annual Report of the European Parliament.

Jelena Marjanović case is another example pertaining the disputable relation of Serbian authorities towards the judiciary. The murder case of a singer who has been killed in Belgrade’s suburb has been filling the front pages of main Serbian newspapers for months now. While the investigation is still ongoing, PM (who became the president meanwhile) and other ministers play the roles of Poirot and Inspector Japp. The red line was crossed when the PM Vučić called the Police authority not to reveal the name of the murder until the elections end, “in order to avoid the speculations about certain persons.”

Judicial liability implies the respect of judgment, both domestic and international. The flagrant breach of this fundamental principle has been done by Defense Minister Vulin who glorified convicted war criminals. On the occasion of Yugoslav Army III Corpus (covering Kosovo during the 1999 war) gathering in Niš, Minister Vulin said that “no one will ever be ashamed of these people again, as the army they commanded never got ashamed of them, and the people whom they defended always respected them”. Minister Vulin blatantly tries to deny the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia judgments by promoting the convicted war criminal, Vlastimir Lazarević. The minister goes further, suggesting that the convicted general Lazarević ought to become a lecturer at the Belgrade Military Academy.

These cases indicate the level of insecurity in the judicial system, interference into the judiciary, political pressures on Prosecutor Office and absence of respect for fundamental and human rights. Truth to be said, all of us agree on principles, but not all of us agree on outcomes. The idea that Serbia will and should eventually join the EU does not restraint the possible measures of Serbian authorities in this process.

Thus, the need for a profound and decisive change concerning the Chapter 23, particularly the respect of judicial protection and fundamental rights, is of utmost necessity and urgency. Due to its importance, this Chapter is under the permanent supervision of the EU institutions and bodies. For instance, a peer review mission will be sent by Brussels until the end of the year for the first time where judges and prosecutors will have as their mandate to check the state of rule of law, independence of judiciary and fight against organized crime.

It is clearly upon the Serbian authorities to render conditions and apply criteria to attain the Chapter 23 standards. Based on PM Kosor’s assessment, Serbia would neither be ready to close the Chapter at this moment.

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