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[EWB Interview] Bilčik: Serbia has to show commitment to its strategic EU choice

Recently published European Commission report on Serbia represented the most negative report so far when it comes to assessment of progress, and the first one to register “backsliding” in any of the areas, namely Chapter 31 which deals with foreign policy. This comes after months of messages by EU officials that Serbia has to join EU sanctions on Russia, which the Serbian government failed to do ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. About the report and the state of Serbia’s EU accession process, we spoke with Vladimir Bilčik, European Parliament rapporteur on Serbia, at the EU Enlargement Think Tank Forum organized in Prague by the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy.

European Western Balkans: There is a strong impression that the latest report by the European Commission on Serbia is the most negative so far, with no advancement when it comes to preparedness for membership in any of the negotiating chapters and also with backsliding in one of the areas. What is the main message for Serbia with this report, the way it’s written and what it remarks?

Vladimir Bilčik: We had a very good discussion in the Foreign Affairs Committee with the Commissioner. I think most of the European Parliament and the Commission see eye to eye on the main political messages. Serbia has made a strategic choice years ago, the European Union is waiting for Serbia to really work on the basis of that choice, and the choice is to be a part of the European family, to be part of the EU, and to work on accession.

We want Serbia to be on board with us and we are asking Serbia to make a clear choice, particularly in the context which has changed so much in Europe politically, geopolitically and in terms of security. The brutal attack by Russia against Ukraine continues as we speak. Serbia stands out as the only country which has not aligned with EU sanctions, but also the only country who’s CFSP alignment is a as low as 45%.

Having said this, of course enlargement is not a single-issue exercise, and it was also clear that in other areas there is potential for forward-looking developments. For instance, it’s more promising now, after the 2022 elections as opposed to 2020 elections, that Serbia has a more pluralistic parliament. The opposition is in an active part of the Skupština, and I know also there is a lot of work done on the justice reform at the level of the institution of the Ministry of Justice, for instance, but none of these will materialize without a government which has a clear set of priorities.

The second message, in addition to alignment, is to be serious about forming a government. Very few people in EU institutions understand- and it’s very difficult to explain to my colleagues, why Serbia doesn’t have a government yet, in October, following a pretty clear result in the elections in April. And so every week without a government is a week lost when it comes to work on important reforms. The main message is that we are waiting for government formation, the ball is in Serbia’s court. This is by no means any pressure we are putting on Serbia. I think Serbia has put itself in this position by missing timely decisions on key issues.

EWB: The European Commission has so far been shy, let’s say, in assessing anything happening in Serbia as backsliding. This is the first time that we actually see the term backsliding within the European Commission report. Is this clear evidence that Chapter 31 and alignment with EU sanctions on Russia is now the core issue on which basically the EU accession in Serbia will depend on in the future?

VB: Accession is about a whole range of issues. At the moment the context is such that the issue of alignment has become politically extremely prominent. It doesn’t mean that rule of law questions, democracy, media freedom, fight against corruption, fight for a cleaner environment are any less important. They are equally important.

Serbia has to make progress on all these issues, but at the moment Serbia is not making progress on any issues, because it does not have a government which would have a clear set of priorities and commitment to more fundamental reforms. At the same time, we are in a situation where Serbia is clearly continuing to stand differently on foreign policy issues.

We have war in Europe. In this context, we want Serbia to work with us, be our partner, when it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And we are ready to work with Serbia on some key issues that concern your country, such as Serbia’s energy dependence on Russia. But Russia has become a completely unreliable partner for Europe. On all issues, including energy. We all hope that Serbia sees the realities the same way. Russia is losing this war and I hope that Serbia and citizens of Serbia choose to be a part of the winning coalition. That is the choice that must be made and that’s why it’s such an important issue politically. So yes, I think that the question of basic alignment with the EU’s principles and values and also standing on the war is certainly an important condition when we talk about fundamental advancement in accession negotiations.

But so much more can be and should be done. Serbia has a number of chapters open, a new cluster was open on environment and energy, but we are waiting to move forward. And again, the ball is in Serbia’s court. What is Serbia’s plan to adjust to the new realities when it comes to the energy crisis? The EU stands ready to help, but we also need to understand what Serbia’s plan is, because the current status quo is unsustainable. I think it’s important that people understand that we are in a situation where the current events are defining the European Union. I’d go as far as saying that some of these changes which we are witnessing at the moment may be as far reaching as what we saw back in the early 1990s in Europe. And I just hope that Serbia can make the right choice not to be stuck in the past but to be a part of a European future.

EWB: Ever since the beginning of the war, we were hearing constantly about this need for Serbia to align itself with the EU foreign policy and therefore all the focus by different EU officials was put on this particular question. Now we have this also in the report. Do you think there is a danger that the focus on this question can overshadow all other areas, which are, as you said, equally important for Serbia’s EU session? Basically, nobody talks about rule law anymore, about the state of democracy and the overall state of reforms. Is there a danger that all other areas could be ignored basically by both EU institutions and the Serbian government?

VB: The Commission’s report covered all areas and is very comprehensive. I will start working on my own Report in the European Parliament soon. It’s going to be equally comprehensive. I will look at all the areas such as rule of law, including the issue of corruption, media freedom, the state of the environment and the state of the economy. I’ve always done this, and this is not going to be any different.

But politically, and in particular for Member States in the European Council, the issue of “are you working with us” is defining at the moment. I think we need to have clarity that Serbia is on board, is working genuinely on its commitment to join the European Union and is ready to make some hard choices. EU accession is about hard choices, it has always been. Many countries in Central Europe had to make those hard choices, including my own. Member States, in particular, are asking whether Serbia is capable of making hard choices because ultimately joining the European Union is also an issue of trust. Do we trust each other enough to sit around the same table and take joint decisions? Do we see the world through the same lenses? Do we understand who our friends and who our enemies are? War has returned to Europe and this war is a big test of where we stand. Every EU Member State has complied with the sanctions so far.

Now, there might be some exceptions on certain issues, and we have negotiated those depending also on energy dependencies. I think this is part of the functioning of the Union. But I think talking to Serbia on how to resolve, for instance, the energy dependence on Russia, would be a lot easier if we saw clearly that Serbia is ready to work with us and commits to membership decisively. And these hard choices include the sanctions against Russia.

Photo: EWB

EWB: The Serbian government frequently says that it is condemning the Russian aggression in when it comes to voting in the UN and therefore that this is basically how Serbia officially treats the conflict, so not supporting Russian actions, including the latest referenda, and that the only thing Serbia is actually not doing are the sanctions. How, how do you see this is, are the sanctions the only measurement or the most important measurement of how Serbia would prove its commitment to the values and to the perspective on the war that EU has?

VB: It’s a very good question, and I will tell you not only how I see it, but what is the sentiment in the EU institutions, including the Member States, because as the Rapporteur I have to work with the EU realities. I very much appreciate what Serbia has aligned with all the UN resolutions, including the latest one on condemning Russian illegal annexation of new territories in Ukraine. That’s very much welcome and well noted. The European Parliament’s Report is reflective of what the political positions are inside the European Parliament and also across the Member States, mostly because MEPs come from different Member States.

But my feeling is that the consistency of voting in the United Nations is not seen as sufficient. Its not enough. We need to see common foreign policy alignment rate, including sanctions, move progressively up. It’s a bit like European integration has become a yo-yo for the authorities in Serbia: sometimes progressing, sometimes regressing. And you see this with the foreign policy very clearly. It was up above 60% at the end of last year and now it went down to around 45%. So, what’s the trend? There is no clear trend towards improving alignment year by year, quite the opposite – at best. And we need to see a positive trends.

Serbia has been in the EU accession process for 8 years and there is little movement on foreign policy alignment, and that’s why we are asking: what is Serbia’s strategic choice? Are you really working with us? Consequently, yes, a number of Member States are asking the question about the sanctions and saying “okay, well, you align with the political positions in the UN but at the same time, you are free riding from the position of not aligning with the sanctions, and that may be importing additional security threats into our neighborhood”. Because Serbia is our EU neighbor. It is one of the key EU neighbors in the Balkans. That is the current discussion and the mood in the European Union.

I would hope that Serbia can look and think about the views in all EU 27 Member States. There are 27 Member States and to join that club you need to really work with each and every one of those EU Member States and see the picture a bit more broadly. I know there are a lot of domestic issues linked to Serbia’s strategic choices, which are also tied to the tragedies of the 1990s and the issue of Kosovo. I often feel like the public debate in Serbia is overshadowed by history that there is little talk about the future. I again saw this week in the news that Belgrade is the most polluted capital in the world, and it’s only October. People are starting to burn all sorts of things in their houses to heat them up. What is it going to look like in November and December, who is going to provide an answer and help Serbia on this so that fewer citizens of Belgrade die prematurely because of health problems connected to terrible air every fall and every winter? It is not Russia, it is not China, it is the EU. In time of war, we want to see that Serbia is really serious about its EU choice. The EU is here and is ready. The EU might not be perfect, but it is the biggest and most transparent investor in your country, the biggest trade partner of Serbia.. And strategically, Serbia is surrounded by the EU, it is not going to remove itself from the Western Balkans. It has to live with the realities of the Western Balkans and the European region. I think the best possible reality for Serbia in the Western Balkans is the European reality.

EWB: Talking about the issue of democracy within the European Commission report, the report describes the electoral process as unfair, it notes pressures on voters, imbalance in media presence, abuse of resources. What do these findings say about the results of the inter party dialogue, in which you have been one of the co-facilitators. Could we see any improvements happening as a result of the dialogue and what could be done in the future? What’s the future of the dialogue?

VB: The state of Serbia’s democracy can only be improved by the people in Serbia. What the EU can do is to help facilitate those improvements by, for instance, helping mediate the dialogue among various political actors. That is what we’ve been doing during the Inter-Party Dialogue. Serbia is not and will never be governed from Brussels. Serbia will be governed from Belgrade, from Novi Sad, from Niš, from all the smaller cities and towns across Serbia, and it is the task of those people who hold the power to make sure that the quality of public life, including democracy, improves.

I think the Inter-Party Dialogue has been successful. We have been engaged with the Skupština for three years now. I do believe that through our work we also made a contribution to the fact that the elections in 2022 were held with the participation of the opposition, that the opposition is now back and holding it seats in the Serbian Parliament. I am absolutely convinced that thanks to the EP-facilitated Inter-Party Dialogue in July the politicians from the whole political spectrum – from the governing majority to the opposition – came and sat around the same table in the Palace of Serbia. We as co-facilitators contributed to a dialogue, and there has been an improvement in the culture of understanding and listening to each other, which has resulted in a more representative National Assembly. The EP-facilitated dialogue has been a successful contribution in this crisis management situation with the previous parliamentary boycott.

We just had an expert mission in Belgrade in September with my new co-facilitator, Matjaž Nemec from the S&D group, and we talked to all relevant political groups in the National Assembly except for the radicals. Everyone is keen to continue with the Inter-Party Dialogue. All partners have appreciated our engagement and they want to see us “back in town” in order to help them improve the quality of the parliamentary processes. We are currently discussing how to set and frame the agenda. This is not going to be a crisis management situation anymore, but it will move to another phase: improving the functioning of the Serbian Parliament so that positive changes can be made before the next elections.

The game-changer for democracy in Serbia is in the hands of elected politicians; the citizens who go to elections; and the proper functioning of all public institutions. That is why moving forward on media freedom is crucial. The situation at the moment is not good. The European Commission, in its recent Report, also says that Serbia needs to move on with the reform of the justice system. There has to be a sense that justice is not just for a few, but for everyone. This is a long-term process. Fight against corruption, once again, is an important issue. I was quite unhappy and displeased, just as many of my colleagues in the European Parliament were, with the process in the run up to the Europride, including the cases of attacks against NGOs and journalists. It’s great that in the end the Europride was held, but at what cost? These are the basic issues which have to be addressed by the politicians. Now, the Inter-Party Dialogue is going to deal with only a fraction of this because we need to focus clearly on the agenda for the next 12 to 18 months. That is what we are discussing at the moment. Needless to say, there are many other tools which Serbia can and should use to improve the state of its democracy.

EWB: But we can frequently hear from EU officials that the EU does not have the right instruments to push forward democratic reform in Serbia. But we can see now, for example, when it comes to sanctions against Russia, EU officials being very vocal about this. We see clear messages that Serbia needs to align itself with EU values when it comes to foreign policy. Why don’t we see the same kind of messages that Serbia needs to align with EU values regarding democracy and the same kind of political pressure on this particular issue?

VB: I think all the current problems are mentioned in the Report. Some of these issues have been pointed out by the European Parliament as well – we have also been quite clear and serious about the problems when it comes to the state of democracy. We are asking Serbia to make a decision on the key defining moment in Europe’s history, at a time when Russia attacks another sovereign state, Ukraine, which is also an EU candidate country. It’s an attack against enlargement. Indirectly, Russia is attacking every other candidate country. That is what is happening, and by extension, I see this as an attack on Serbia, an EU candidate country, as well. This is something which should be well noted and understood across the region.

I want to assure everyone that we are not shying away from discussing or tackling all the other issues. When, or if, Serbia aligns with the EU sanctions, is not the end of the story; it’s rather the beginning. We want Serbia to be a part of the same conversation that all the other candidate countries from the region are having with the EU at this very moment. Serbia’s position on sanctions is isolated from the rest of the region. I want Serbia to be part of the common, even if only starting, position. The important discussion on the rule of law, on the quality of the media, on how to fight against corruption, and how to improve the environment and the the economy will continue, because all these topics have been a part of the EU accession process.

EWB: When it comes to the sanctions, would it be enough for Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia if it happens in the circumstances where the government of Serbia continues with its anti-EU rhetoric and basically explains that it’ll only impose sanctions if pressured enough by the Union and if the economic survival of Serbia is jeopardized. Are these narratives about the war also a part of the package or just imposing sanctions under pressure is practically enough?

VB: Nobody is pressuring Serbia.

EWB: Pressure in terms of a clear message that there will be consequences in terms of EU accession if this is not done and the Serbian government interprets it as pressure.

VB: I’ve heard this interpretation, but I don’t agree that this is pressure. Serbia has made its strategic choice years ago, and that choice was to apply for EU membership. Serbia is putting itself under pressure, nobody is pressuring Serbia. Serbia is putting itself under pressure because Serbia has made a choice and is now expected to align with that choice in order to move forward in the EU accession process. I would expect every government, which says it wants to join the EU, to have a pro-EU rhetoric.

EWB: So basically, you believe that the sanctions themselves need to be followed by a different narrative, by a clear commitment to the values underpinning the sanctions? 

VB: I think we are discussing the basic fundamentals right now which we all thought in the EU were long answered, and Serbia, I guess, has to really renew its commitment to the basic strategic choice which it made years ago. This is what we are expecting.

EWB: We have seen that the support of Serbian citizens for EU accession has dropped significantly in the past several months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and now the opposition to membership is somewhere around 50% or above 50%. Should this be a worrying signal for the European Union and its institutions? And what does this say about the Serbian government’s political will for EU membership?

VB: I think it should be first and foremost a warning signal for the government in Serbia. If a government in Serbia says it wants to join the EU and the public opinion is as low as it is in terms of the support, then I would expect the government to work actively and engage with the public to explain why joining the EU is a good thing.

EWB: But we see government officials basically promoting narratives which are actually explaining what’s currently going on as undeserved pressure on Serbia, showing the EU in a very negative light, so to a large part contributing to this drop.

VB: I would expect any government, which is serious about EU membership, to really work on public communication, which clearly explains the benefits of the EU.

EWB: Recently there was this report on Serbia, adopted at the Foreign Affairs Committee and it’s expected to be adopted by the European Parliament plenary. It’s clearly saying that Serbia’s progress should be conditioned by sanctions in Russia and improvements in the rule of law. What do you believe can be the consequences of this report? What do you think it can actually bring in practice?

VB: It is a recommendation on the future of EU enlargement which the European Parliament will adopt in November and deals more broadly with EU accession and other candidate countries. It is a political signal from the European Parliament which is also reflective of the mood across the Member States. Serbia has to make clear choices when it comes to EU membership. We want to have Serbia on board. We are waiting for those choices to be made but time if of essence; that waiting will not be indefinite.


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