CSOs ask Serbia to step up efforts to ensure the rule of law and enabling civic space are respected

European Economic and Social Committee; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The 7th meeting of the EU-Serbia Civil Society Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) that took place in Belgrade on 23 October gave an opportunity to civil society organisations from both sides to examine the state of play of Serbia’s accession process. Although welcoming positive economic developments in Serbia, the JCC expressed in the joint declaration its concern about “the lack of progress in the area of freedom of expression” and encouraged the Serbian authorities to “redouble their efforts to ensure respect for the rule of law, fundamental rights, judicial reform, the fight against corruption and freedom of the press”.

JCC members welcomed the recent positive signals from the EU institutions showing that enlargement policy would be at the centre of the EU’s attention in the coming years and were pleased that Serbia had opened new chapters of the accession negotiations. While welcoming positive economic developments in Serbia, such as stronger growth in 2018 with a fall in unemployment, the JCC invited Serbian authorities to concentrate on the implementation of structural reforms that would also bring social progress and social cohesion to Serbian society, in close cooperation with social partners and other civil society organisations (CSOs).

Focus on social issues and enabling civic space

Taking into account positive economic developments, the JCC members invited the Serbian authorities to concentrate on structural reforms relating to social policy, education and employment, as unemployment persists “without adequate support to foster labour market integration”. Recent studies show that half a million of Serbian citizens are unable to meet basic subsistence needs because of the weakness of the social assistance system. With a goal to reduce poverty and inequalities, the JCC encouraged the Serbian authorities to comprehensively reform the tax system towards a progressive one “based predominantly on direct taxes “. The JCC also invited the Serbian authorities to address regional disparities and informal economy, as well as to pay special attention to the most vulnerable groups in the society such as women, Roma and people with disabilities. As for the role of the social partners, the JCC members consider that they should be consulted “more systematically and in a timely manner” on all relevant legislative proposals.

The JCC expressed concern about shrinking civic space in Serbia and urged the Serbian authorities to guarantee the protection of human rights defenders, anti-corruption organisations and independent journalists. Although civil society platforms do exist in Serbia, according to the JCC they should be used “more efficiently and transparently”. To achieve this goal, the joint declaration suggested a number of concrete actions for the improvement of the existing legal and institutional framework.

Background

The JCC is one of the bodies set up within the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Union and Serbia. It enables civil society organisations from both sides to monitor Serbia’s progress towards EU membership and to adopt recommendations for the attention of the government of Serbia and the EU institutions. At its last meeting, members discussed the level of inequality and equal opportunities in the areas of social policy and employment in the EU and Serbia and assessed Serbia’s usage of the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA).