European Western Balkans

Will Serbia accept the new methodology and what could be the role of civil society?

Flags of Serbia and EU; Photo: EWB

The article was originally published on the Serbian language version of our portal.

The new enlargement methodology, presented by the European Commission on 6 February, was finally adopted by the EU Council in late March. This document can be said to be the result of an intense debate, but also compromise, as it was preceded by a series of “non-papers” and analyses presented by member states and the expert community.

The adopted methodology is part of the same package as the decision to open negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, to which it will be directly applied. Serbia and Montenegro were given the choice to decide whether the new methodology would be applied to them without changing the negotiating frameworks.

“A rational decision would be to accept the methodology. Serbia cannot be harmed by the new methodology,” said Vladimir Međak, Vice President of the European Movement in Serbia (EMinS).

He reminds that the methodology was written for the countries that are just opening negotiations and that it will refer to Serbia in parts where it is applicable.

“The modalities of implementation must be agreed with the European Commission, but it is clear that only increased reporting, supervision and political management of the process can refer to Serbia. Opening the chapters by clusters is not applicable to Serbia,” says Međak.

He believes that it would not be a wise decision for Serbia to reject the new methodology and to remain the only country in the Western Balkans outside its scope.

“It is wise to follow the trends in the European Union itself and use them to your advantage instead of resisting them. This is especially true because Serbia cannot have any negative effects from the new methodology, and at the same time those negative effects are possible even today if Serbia does not fulfil its obligations from the negotiations as it obliged to, especially in the field of rule of law,” says Međak.

The Chairman of the Governing Board of the European Policy Centre (CEP) and a member of BiEPAG Srđan Majstorović, reminds that although the new methodology is not directly intended for Serbia, it “seeks to speed up, simplify and make the EU enlargement process more credible.”

Majstorović reminds that Serbia has not yet officially reacted to this possibility and that apart from a few vague statements by some members of the Government, and initial positive reactions of President Vučić during the visit of Commissioner Várhelyi, it is still unknown how Serbia will position itself regarding the new methodology.

“During the mentioned visit, it was said that when deciding, Serbia will “look exactly at what we can gain and what we can lose” by accepting the new methodology. This shows Serbia’s transactional approach to EU membership negotiations, while the idea of ​​a new methodology to promote “political governance” in candidate countries is based on a clear political decision to join the Union and accept all its rules and values,” Majstorović said.

The Chairman of the Governing Board of CEP reminds that the candidates are expected to express unequivocal political will whether they are sincerely interested and committed to the application of the stated rules and values ​​or not.

“Every ‘yes, but’ in this process means that the candidate either does not understand the process of taking on the obligations of joining the EU, or is not overly interested in accepting the values ​​on which the Union is based,” Majstorović believes.

EU-Western Balkans Summit; Photo: Twitter/AndrejPlenkovic

How can the new methodology be applied to Serbia?

The question remains how the new methodology would be applied to Serbia at all without changing the negotiating framework, as was stated in the methodology.

“Serbia has already opened 18 chapters and submitted negotiating positions for five more chapters. Therefore, most of the essential change, i.e. the introduction of clusters in the negotiations is not applicable to Serbia. Other changes, such as the introduction of greater political governance, can only be used for bigger pressure to implement reforms in Serbia,” EMinS Vice President Vladimir Međak said.

He reiterates that the bigger benefits that Serbia can have from moving closer to the EU and inclusion in its policies even before membership can in no way be harmful to Serbia.

“The negotiating framework for negotiations with Serbia itself does not regulate issues such as the content of the annual report or the organization of intergovernmental conferences with the content envisaged by the new methodology, so a change in the negotiating framework is not necessary. It is enough for the EU and Serbia to agree on how they will work in the future,” says Međak.

He believes that member states can certainly start behaving in accordance with the new methodology and make their approval of opening and closing of chapters conditional in regard to meeting certain requirements in the ways specified in the new methodology.

“For example, each state can assess that the closure of any chapter must wait until Serbia meets the interim benchmarks for Chapters 23 and 24. For that, a change in the negotiating framework is not necessary. This is possible especially because Serbia is already three years behind its action plans in these areas, and a serious setback in these chapters has been noticed by Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders “, says Međak.

Srđan Majstorović reminds that the text of the methodology states that the negotiating framework for conducting accession negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia will not change, but that its application is possible within the existing ones, with their consent.

“The legal basis for conducting accession negotiations with the EU are primarily the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, and all negotiating frameworks for the accession of new members to the Union are based on the same legal principles and norms,” ​​Majstorović reminds.

He believes that under the assumption that Serbia sincerely shares common values ​​and wants to change and adjust to the rules and standards of the European Union, “there are no obstacles that would influence Serbia not to accept the continuation of negotiations based on the new methodology.”

Majstorović reminds that the new methodology also mentions the possibility of suspending negotiations, rewarding successful candidates and sanctioning unsuccessful ones, the stronger role of the body for implementation of the Stabilization and Association Agreement in accession negotiations, as well as the inclusion of representatives of candidate countries in EU forums at various levels, from ministers’ meetings to the meetings of heads of states or governments.

“All the above elements should not be any novelty for Serbia, given that most of them are already contained in the Negotiating Framework or, with possible minor adjustments, are part of the existing institutions and procedures for monitoring the implementation of the SAA,” Majstorovic stated.

In his opinion, the grouping of related negotiation chapters into clusters should not be an insurmountable obstacle that would influence Serbia’s decision to agree to the application of the new methodology.

“With some adjustments, this approach should allow for a stronger focus on key reforms in related areas and improve strategic planning of public policy. This should at the same time influence the interest and responsibility of political leaders to become more strongly involved in strategic planning within the process of accession to the Union. This approach should provide citizens with a clearer overview of the progress made and the logic of accession negotiations, in relation to the “counting” of open chapters so far,” Majstorović believes.

Moderator Ljubica Gojgić, Suzana Grubješić, Milena Lazarević, Vladimir Međak and Srđan Majstorović; Photo: Tanjug / Dragan Kujundžić

The role of civil society in the negotiation process: can the application of the new methodology be influenced in Serbia?

Representatives of civil society organisations in Serbia presented their own proposals for reform of the process, submitting in early February to the European Commission and other bodies a document “Integrating the Western Balkans: Completing Future Europe”.

This document, signed by seven civil society organisations from Serbia focused on regional European integration, consisted of eight recommendations, five of which directly address the issue of enlargement methodology. The signatory organizations proposed including the Western Balkan countries in the EU programs, improving the system for measuring progress and clearly identifying elements of state capture in them, increasing available funds during the negotiation process, as well as increasing EU engagement in resolving bilateral disputes in the region.

The new enlargement methodology contains a significant part of the elements found in this document from Serbia. Candidate countries are allowed to be included in certain policies of the European Union after the successful completion of negotiations in specific cluster. An increase in accession funds is also envisaged, linked to the successful implementation of reforms. “Captured state” is not mentioned in the methodology, but new mechanisms and a greater focus on the rule of law and democratic institutions are announced, as well as a greater role for member states in monitoring key reforms.

The question remains whether and in what way civil society organizations can influence the application of elements of the new methodology to Serbia. In addition to the mentioned document, they reported on the negotiation process for years and pointed out to its shortcomings, as well as proposed certain improvements.

Srđan Majstorović reminds that civil society organizations have in some way “announced” some of the key elements of the new methodology with their recommendations, since the proposed measures coincide with those defined by the new methodology.

“The essence of the proposal of civil society organizations is to promote procedures, control, financial, regulatory and communication measures that should ensure the sustainability of democratic and economic convergence of candidates in the accession process, and thus prevent possible subsequent collapse of democratic rights and freedoms,” Majstorović said.

According to Majstorović, it is clear that the European Commission has listened carefully to civil society suggestions, especially when it comes to improving the method of monitoring and evaluating candidates’ progress, as threats to democratic institutions and the rule of law have become apparent in candidate countries which are considered leaders in the integration process.

“The methodology proposes stronger involvement of experts and representatives of member states in the process of monitoring the implementation of the undertaken obligations, which is also in line with the proposals of civil society to use instruments such as the Priebe report,” Majstorović reminds.

However, he believes that given the debate over the EU budget and financial instruments to combat the pandemic, it remains to be seen how the EU will respond to civil society requests for additional funding for structural reforms.

“The application of the methodology, especially the parts concerning the functioning of democratic institutions and respect for the rule of law, will largely depend on the scope of financial support for measures of social and economic recovery of the Western Balkan countries after the pandemic,” Majstorović said.

He recalls that the role of civil society is essential for the full legitimacy of such a complex process as the accession to the European Union.

“Civil society organizations can contribute to the application of the new methodology with their professional capacities and advice, public advocacy for necessary changes, informing the public and regular reporting. Combined within larger platforms such as the National Convention for the EU, they can put additional pressure on the public if they notice that the behavior of state institutions deviates from the proclaimed goals “, says Majstorović.

In his point of view, the new methodology insists on respecting the principles of inclusiveness and transparency, and therefore it does not differ substantially from what is already an integral part of the negotiating framework for Serbia.

“Unfortunately, the practice so far has shown that methodological assumptions often differ in relation to their application in reality. The application of the principle of involving civil society in the process of European integration depends exclusively on the readiness of state bodies to open a dialogue with representatives of civil society on all important topics, ” said Majstorović.

According to Majstorović, that dialogue should be well organized, based on mutual respect of participants, to be held at regular and pre-determined times, as well as to have a clear function in the process of Serbia’s accession to the EU and concrete results.

“Civil society in Serbia has the expertise and reputation of an independent actor whose credibility can contribute to the legitimacy of the process of joining the Union, and thus help any government that is seriously committed to the necessary changes,” Majstorović concluded.

According to Vladimir Međak, the function of civil society remains the same: to monitor, propose measures and point out bad practices, delays and setbacks.

“The new methodology explicitly states that the reports of third organizations will be taken as a basis for creating a picture of progress. That has been the case so far, but now the EU is explicitly calling for it. That is why shadow reports and communication with international civil society organizations will represent an additional possibility of influencing the Government”, Međak believes.

He believes that the space for the influence of civil society on the negotiation process provided by the new methodology remains the same as before, “very narrow”.

“The lack of will for dialogue that the Government and its ruling majority show even within the parliament will continue to be the main barrier to a broader dialogue in Serbia, and consequently with the civil society.” “Methodology cannot solve the internal problems of the Republic of Serbia and the lack of dialogue, that is primarily the job of our society,” Međak concludes.

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