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European Western Balkans
Politics

Focus on the fundamentals as a basis for progress in EU integration

Photo: MEI

BELGRADE — In order for Serbia to progress on the path towards the European Union, but also for citizens to see clear benefits from the reform process, it is necessary to start from the fundamentals — democracy, the rule of law and civil liberties — areas in which significant political will is necessary for progress, the panelists concluded at the discussion “Fundamentals First: The State of Serbia’s Accession Process” held on November 14 in Belgrade, organized by the European Western Balkans portal and the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy from Prague.

Together with the representatives of civil society, the new Minister for European Integration, Tanja Miščević, also participated in the discussion. This is her first public event of this format since taking office, as was emphasized by Nemanja Todorović Štiplija, editor-in-chief of the European Western Balkans portal, who added that this is the first time after more than 6 years that the minister has participated in a panel discussion with civil society regarding the European integration of Serbia.

The event is supported by the Government of the Czech Republic and represents the completion of a project that the Center for Contemporary Politics and the European Western Balkans portal implemented together with the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy, therefore one of the important topics of discussion were lessons learnt by the Czech Republic on its own EU integration path.

His Excellency Tomáš Kuchta, Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the Republic of Serbia, opened the event with a message that the topic of Serbia’s European integration is particularly important for the Czech Republic, because the promotion of enlargement policies has been marked as one of the main priorities of the Czech Presidency of the European Union, which began on July 1 and ends on December 31, 2022.

“In addition to the enlargement process, the Czech Republic, within its presidency, does everything in its power to deepen and strengthen the cooperation between the Western Balkans and the European Union and to contribute to the creation of the best possible conditions for the future integration of the region in the EU. The principle of fundamentals first, that is, giving priority to topics such as the rule of law and the functioning of democratic institutions in the process of European integration, is something that the EU has insisted on since its foundation, and the reasons for this do not need an explanation. As long as there is a lack of democracy and the rule of law in the country, the possibility of its overall progress is excluded,” said Ambassador Kuchta.

Minister Miščević began her address, moderated by journalist Filip Lukić, with an overview on the main issues concerning Cluster 1 and the current state of Serbia’s European integration when it comes to the fundamentals. She thanked Ambassador Kuchta for the support that the Czech Republic provides to Serbia in the EU accession process, as well as for the support to civil society.

Miščević emphasized that the conditions under which the process of European integration of Serbia takes place are significantly different from the Czech case, not only because of the new methodology, which is more detailed and comprehensive, but also because of problems on the international scene such as the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis. However, what has not changed is the importance of the internal reform process, of “what we do at home.”

“If we focus on Cluster 1, which is about the fundamentals, that’s where we get to the element of acceptance of values. The determination to fulfill what is a functional, stable democracy and the institutions that support it can be seen the most in the rule of law and in the fundamentals,” the minister pointed out.

She emphasized the importance of the progress report of the European Commission, which “crystallized clear and urgent activities” that need to be undertaken in these areas, and identified three key segments of Serbia’s further progress when it comes to fundamentals.

The first segment refers to the implementation of constitutional amendments through the adoption of appropriate laws, as well as the joint monitoring of implementation, which is the duty of “judges and prosecutors, but also civil society, in addition to state institutions, of course.”

The second segment, according to Minister Miščević, is the fight against corruption, as well as the reform of state administration, improving the position of civil society, achieving media freedom and improving minority rights. These are areas in which it is necessary to ensure the implementation of existing legal frameworks, while simultaneously advancing them.

The minister explained that a a new strategy for the fight against corruption with an action plan is in the drafting process, after integrity plans for a large number of professions have been drawn up as “mandatory instruments for the fight against corruption in each of the individual institutions.” She added that this document “passed under the radar,” but that it is an important element of the “firm fight against corruption.”

In the third segment, the minister referred to the issue of communication in the process of European integration, which she said should be improved and called on civil society to help in this task.

“Let’s change the narrative and talk about the benefits. I’m not talking about funds here, but about the benefits that the reforms bring to Serbian citizens in their place of residence through amendments to the constitution and laws. That kind of conversation is very important to us. Until now, there has been talk of opening and closing chapters, without paying attention to what it actually means for citizens and how they understand what the process of European integration actually means,” said Minister Miščević and announced a survey in December that will focus on citizens’ opinions on the European integration process of Serbia.

Nikola Burazer, executive editor of EWB and program director of CSP, agreed that the circumstances in which the accession process of the Western Balkan countries is taking place “do not resemble those that existed in Europe in the 90s and early 2000s, when the countries of Central and Eastern Europe had their own accession negotiation processes” and added that other Western Balkan countries also have a problem with the duration of the European integration process, for example North Macedonia, which has been a candidate for 17 years.

“When it comes to Serbia, we can talk about two types of responsibility for the slow process. On the one hand, we have the question of the political will for enlargement in the European Union itself and whether the European Union delivers on its promises. We shouldn’t refrain from that type of criticism, but it was always more interesting for me to talk about what is the responsibility of Serbia itself, the authorities in Serbia and our entire society. It is easy to look for excuses, but what we as citizens should be interested in is what Serbia is doing in this matter and whether it is ready to join the European Union, if the circumstances change,” said Burazer.

He added that he does not think that the main problems on the way to the EU are foreign policy, Kosovo or the reform process, but “the absence of a clear political will for joining the EU and implementing everything that EU membership requires.” He also recalled the case of Croatia, where the establishment of the rule of law resulted in former members of the government being held accountable at the court of law, which is “a lesson about the fact that European integration can cost those who implement it,” and that perhaps this is the reason behind the lack of political will among the authorities in Serbia.

Adviser for European integration in YUCOM and coordinator of the Working Group of the National Convention on the EU (NCEU) for chapter 23, Jovana Spremo, believes that the biggest reason for the stagnation in European integration is “a mismatch of wills,” because at the moment when Serbia made more decisive steps towards alignment with the fundamentals during 2016 and 2017, the EU “set aside the enlargement process.”

She believes that the new methodology provides a chance for Serbia and the countries of the Western Balkans to use the guidelines to advance towards the EU as a clear and visible goal, but that the issue of political will for this remains crucial. Spremo said that the focus should not be on the reform process itself, but on its essence, which is inseparably tied to implementation.

“I think that within specific value clusters, we lack another guideline, and that is implementation first. This is something that constrains Serbia’s progress. On one hand, in the previous two years we could see changes in terms of the legislative framework. On the other hand, the implementation of what is considered a very good framework is stagnating or even regressing. The question is whether Serbia can create that balance: simultaneously improving and harmonizing the legislative framework, while keeping a clear and direct focus on the implementation of what is already good.”

Strahinja Subotić, senior researcher at the Center for European Policy (CEP), drew attention to the “prioritization of EU membership in the latest Government’s exposé”, which he believes was not clearly highlighted in comparison to previous exposés. He says that “it is certainly indicated that our future is in the EU”, but the document does not go much further than that. He also pointed out that the EC reports do not mention state capture, although “there are elements of a captured state in all the countries of the Western Balkans.”

Subotić believes that quantifying the grades in the report would help citizens to be better informed about the state of European integration, as well as make it impossible to manipulate the grades from the report. He added that this step would “strengthen the role of civil society” and hold the authorities accountable. According to him, qualitative evaluations should also be introduced for democratic institutions.

He also referred to the message that EC President Ursula von der Leyen sent via Twitter during her recent visit to Serbia in which she praised Serbia’s European integration, which did not sit right with the civil society monitoring the process of European integration.

“There are two key reasons why the change in rhetoric can affect the situation in Serbia. On one hand, it can prevent interpretive denial, in which the facts are accepted but the interpretation is changed. On the other hand, concrete rhetoric towards Serbia can prevent falsification of the Commission’s report,” said Subotić.

Jana Juzova from the Czech EUROPEUM, a partner in the organization of the event, also referred to the problem of inadequate communication by the EU and added that this is a recommendation that civil society has been pointing to for years. Juzova believes that “more honesty on both sides” is needed, as well as placing the entire burden of blame for the stalled enlargement to the EU “is not useful for anyone and does not move us forward.” Nevertheless, she believes that the EU owes more clarity and that it is necessary to point out the problems unequivocally so that there is no room for doubts and misinterpretations.

“In this regard, I would say that Serbia is in an even more difficult position right now than the rest of the region, because with the change of geopolitical situation that we have now in the context of the war in Ukraine, very high expectations are being placed on Serbia from the EU side. Everyone understands that this is a sensitive question for Serbia and that time is required and discussions must be held, but at the same time the EU is growing impatient in Serbia, mostly at the level of Member States. We are all expecting some clear message and a clear sign of where Serbia actually stands,” she said.

Juzova added that the EU “can be criticized for its inconsistency” when it comes to rewarding progress or punishing backsliding, although “the criteria are very clear from the beginning.”

Bojan Elek, deputy director of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, said that the key things in relations with the EU are “trust and responsibility.” According to his opinion, more attention should be paid to the year 2014, when the EU sent a message that there will be no enlargement in the next 5 years, which was then understood as that in those 5 years we should not continue on the path of reforms and be ready for accession when the doors of the EU open again.

Elek believes that since 2014, “we have been in a free fall when it comes to democracy and the rule of law,” but also that “the fault lies on both sides.”

“There were disappointed expectations. They expected us to reform faster, to rush to the EU, we expected them to help us with that. The example of North Macedonia was mentioned, which shows that even if you deliver what is requested, it does not mean that that effort will be rewarded. On the other hand, if you backslide, as in the case of Serbia, it does not mean that you will be punished,” explained Elek.

When it comes to the importance of responsibility, he drew upon the example of the previous minister, Jadranka Joksimović, who tried to justify the lack of formal progress for two years by the new methodology and the impossibility of verifying the progress. Elek welcomed the election of Tanja Miščević as the new Minister for European Integration and said that he had “complete confidence in her credibility, competence and expertise,” but that at this moment “it is necessary to make political decisions, and that any insistence on expertise is a waiver of responsibilities.”

He also referred to the recent BCBP survey, which shows that Serbian citizens are polarized when it comes to the EU. He pointed out that an equal percentage of citizens (45%) are for and against accession to the European Union, and that the moment when the EU’s popularity began to decline happened during the pandemic, while China’s image as a foreign policy partner in the Serbian public improved. 

At the end of the discussion, Minister Miščević referred once again to the main topics discussed at the panel. On the topic of harmonization with the CFSP, she said that “it is Serbia’s obligation to gradually harmonize its foreign policy until EU membership,” and that at this moment “it is not necessary,” because we are not yet a member state and we do not know when we will become one. She added that certain elements of foreign policy, such as participation in EU missions or voting in the United Nations, are not included in the percentage of compliance, but that Serbia is compliant in these areas.

She explained that she is against the proposal to quantify the grades from the report, because according to her, it is not possible to compare the progress of “a country that has 22 open chapters with a country that is still doing screening.” Also, she believes that the change in the legal framework does not come “from the desire for over-norming, but for harmonization with EU law.”

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