Serbia recently received the green light from the EU Member States to open Cluster Four in the EU accession negotiations, and thus, after two years of complete stalemate and the adoption of a new methodology, has finally taken a new step closer to membership.
However, the decision of EU Мember Сtates to encourage Serbia this way, despite the fact that it has formally and legally met all the conditions for opening four chapters within this cluster, seems to many to be “premature”, politically motivated, and an “uncritical reward” for a country that has made no progress in meeting fundamental values, such as the rule of law and the establishment of democratic institutions.
Serbia has submitted all negotiating positions, adopted action plans and strategies in the areas covered by Cluster Four – Green Agenda and Sustainable Connectivity, which includes chapters – Transport (14), Energy (15), Trans-European Networks (21), and Environment and climate change (27).
However, EU Member States decided to take a step forward in the negotiations at a time when mass environmental protests were being held in Serbia, which were included in the European Parliament resolution condemning Serbia. On the other hand, EU-backed constitutional reforms are currently being prepared.
Apart from the EU’s interest to signal to the entire Western Balkans that the enlargement process is continuing, and to apply the new methodology, experts point at political and even geopolitical games behind this decision.
Serbia is facing presidential, parliamentary, and local elections, which will be an important test of democracy and a process in which the EU wants to maintain greater affection of citizens and Serbian authorities than other, lately increasingly closer allies – Russia and China.
The momentum of the enlargement policy and the confirmation of the new methodology
“First, this is a way to show that the enlargement policy is not completely blocked, bearing in mind that there has been no progress in Serbia or the entire Western Balkans for two years. The European Commission would probably like to be able to show that the enlargement policy has its benefits on the example of North Macedonia, but due to the fact that they could not achieve Bulgaria’s approval for something like that, they could show that, in Serbia at least, something is moving”, Strahinja Subotić, Programme Manager and Senior Researcher at the European Policy Centre (CEP), told European Western Balkans.
He added that Serbia has met the legal threshold for the opening of this Cluster, and that, on that side, the EU’s approval of the opening of Cluster Four is justified. Apart from the fact that the EU promotes the enlargement policy, another reason for the “green light” for Serbia, according to Subotić, is the promotion of the revised enlargement methodology, which was adopted almost two years ago and so far there have been no significant steps based on the new methodology.
“This is an opportunity to justify the revised EU methodology. The EU Delegation to Serbia constantly emphasizes that this is the result of the application of the revised methodology, thus the EU shows that it wants, perhaps artificially, to create a link between the adoption of the revised methodology and the opening of the chapters. However, the new methodology, and we from CEP often point that out, has not been fully used. It has been reduced to clusters and the most interesting idea – enabling gradual access to policies and institutions of the European Union – has not been applied”, said Subotić.
Marko Savković, Program Director of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence Foundation for Responsible Society, also argues that the opening of Cluster Four gives impetus to the enlargement process, but also confirms the new methodology.
“There are valid arguments that if a new cluster had not been opened, then we would not have had anything good in the Western Balkans all year when it comes to European integration and the new methodology would not have been applied. With the opening, the state also seems more obliged to enter the process of European integration,” he emphasized.
Timing before the elections in Serbia and environmental protests
In addition to the European Union’s interest to show that the enlargement policy continues and to legitimise the revised methodology, the reasons for opening Cluster Four include, perhaps more importantly, political interests, as well as the circumstances of the upcoming elections and environmental protests in Serbia.
Strahinja Subotić reminds that Serbia is expecting parliamentary, presidential and local elections, announced for the beginning of April, which the EU member states certainly had in mind when deciding on further steps in the negotiations with Serbia.
“The European Union is aware that not much usually happens during the election years on the implementation of the acquis communautaire, and if they had not taken this step now, it would have delayed the process up to a year, after the elections and the formation of the new government. That would mean three years of standing still, which is too long and it would speak, not only about us, but it would be a signal that the EU is not ingenious enough to change anything,” he stressed.
In the political sense, by opening the cluster, as Subotić points out, the European Union “bought peace”, i.e. space not to be an easy target during the potentially dirty election campaign in Serbia.
According to Marko Savković, the timing for the opening of the environmental Cluster Four, at a time when large environmental protests are taking place in Serbia, is only an “unfortunate coincidence” for both Serbia and the European Union. On the other hand, he said, it is an open question whether Serbia had deserved it.
“The question is whether the EU is thus rewarding a candidate country, which, when it comes to the fundamentals of negotiations, all that is contained in Cluster One, has not taken the necessary steps. We do not have an improvement in the general situation in society in a way that would indicate that divisions are being overcome, that there is a rule of law, that pluralism and different opinions in society are being nurtured. The mood prevailed that the opening would mean an uncritical reward”, Savković emphasizes.
However, the most important thing, in his opinion, is what signal the EU will give for the upcoming elections in Serbia.
“It is important that the EU, with the tools at its disposal, conditions Belgrade for the next elections to take place in, as fair and democratic atmosphere as possible. If we want to look like a functional democracy once we get one step closer to the EU, these elections are of great importance,” Savković emphasized.
Serbia closer to the EU means further away from Russia and China
Apart from internal political circumstances and relations between Serbia and the EU, Strahinja Subotić believes that the Union had strong geopolitical reasons to keep Serbia on the “European path”. By giving a signal that it is approaching the membership, EU is keeping Serbia away from Russia and China.
“In addition to Russia and the energy issue, there is China, which is increasingly present in this area, and this is definitely a way for the EU to insist on implementing laws that could potentially harm Chinese interests, i.e. all those Chinese companies that are considered to have a negative impact on our green policies “, he emphasizes.
Subotić reminds that China has made the biggest step forward in terms of increasing its presence in the Balkans and Serbia during the two years when there was no progress in the process of Serbia’s accession to the EU.
“China took advantage of a period of inaction, especially during the pandemic, and proved to be a player that can effectively project its power beyond its borders, in those fields for which it was not initially expected. Earlier, it was thought that China would act in the field of energy, infrastructure, economy, and now we see that it is directly fighting for the minds and hearts of citizens,” says Subotić.
In that context, he cites the results of various polls which show that the citizens of Serbia are the most skeptical about joining the EU, and adds that the opening of Cluster Four is a “desperate attempt” by the EU to change that.
For environmentalists – a premature move at a politically sensitive time
Zvezdan Kalmar, Coordinator for Energy at the Center for Ecology and Sustainable Development (CEKOR), who has dealt directly with legislative issues in the areas covered by Cluster Four and through the National Convention for the European Union, believes that opening Cluster Four is a “premature move”.
“Regardless of the fact that we have long ago submitted the negotiating position for the chapters on environment and energy, I think that the opening of Cluster Four is a premature move and a kind of excessive positive credit to the current government at a politically very sensitive moment,” Kalmar said.
He considers the politically sensitive moment to be the fact that in parallel with the opening of the Cluster, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning Serbia for its dealing with the conditions of the workers in the Chinese Linglong factory in Zrenjanin, but also for environmental protests in Serbia.
“This is a very debatable and symbolic move precisely because of these environmental protests, which are neither accidental nor as politically motivated as it had been presented, they are generated by the state of the environment and public awareness that our voice in environmental decision-making is very limited accepted. That is why this has a relative value”, Kalmar said.
As for Serbia’s progress in the areas covered by the chapters and the fulfillment of the conditions for their opening, Kalmar says that the EU assessments are too positive because he believes that it is not appropriate to open Chapter 27 at all while Serbia has no monitoring of air pollution.
“The opening of Chapter 27 should be fully conditioned by the establishment of reliable and detailed air monitoring for the whole of Serbia. For me, this is a criterion for opening chapters on energy and transport, because only with such monitoring will it be possible to monitor progress in these areas. Everything is under the shadow of the doubt until that happens,” Kalmar emphasized.
This article is published within the project “Supporting media freedom in Serbia in relation to the EU accession process”, implemented in cooperation with EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy and supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. The views expressed in this article do not represent those of the EUROPEUM Institute or those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.