European Western Balkans

Agreement with Kosovo: A condition for continuing negotiations of or a shortcut to Serbian EU membership?

Vučić-Kurti meeting in Brussels, 18 August 2022; Photo: FoNet

The agreement in Ohrid was the second in the past month that Kosovo and Serbia committed to. After the acceptance of the European plan in Brussels, the Annex related to its implementation was accepted in Ohrid. The leaders of the European Union have stated on several occasions that one of the goals of the agreement between Belgrade and Pristina is to accelerate the European path of Serbia and Kosovo. Thus, the perception is again being created in the public that the solution to the Kosovo issue is a condition of all conditions, as well as that the doors of the European Union are open if an agreement is reached with Pristina.

Regardless of the fact that the meeting in Ohrid was praised and marked as a step forward in the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, what remains unclear is how the agreement will speed up Serbia’s EU integration, bearing in mind that Kosovo is not the only problem and reason for the standstill on that road.

If one looks only at last year’s report of the European Commission, for the first time since the opening of negotiations in 2014, Serbia has regressed in some area. Although a formal setback was recorded only in Chapter 31, which concerns the Common Foreign and Security Policy, due to the decision of the Serbian authorities not to comply with the sanctions against Russia, the ratings concerning other chapters cannot be satisfactory for the country that has been negotiating membership for over eight years.

The European Commission said for EWB that negotiations on normalization with the mediation by the EU are an integral part of the negotiations, and that “peace, reconciliation and economic development are key prerequisites for the accelerated progress of the Western Balkans region towards the EU”.

“As the HRVP stated in Ohrid, the agreement on normalisation of relations is first of all in the interest of the people of Serbia and Kosovo, for regional stability more widely and so that Kosovo and Serbia can advance on their respective European paths”. Said Ana Pisonero, the spokeswoman for the European Commission.

When asked how the negotiations could be accelerated, considering specific objections and delays in areas unrelated to Kosovo, Pisonero reminded that the enlargement process is based on “fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of merit”.

“This includes the expectation that candidate countries implement reforms across the different clusters and chapters, starting with “the fundamentals”, which includes the rule of law. These are the first chapters to be opened in the accession process and the last ones to be closed, in line with the enhanced methodology”, Pisonero said.

She stressed that the further pace of Serbia’s accession negotiations will be conditioned by progress in the area of the rule of law and the normalization of relations with Pristina.

Pisonero: Progress on the rule of law and the normalization of relations continues to determine Serbia’s overall pace in the accession negotiations

Vice President of the European Movement in Serbia (EPuS) Vladimir Međak said for EWB that he does not see any room for speeding up the negotiations, adding that the acceptance of the European proposal is more of a condition for any negotiation process to continue.

According to him, even if the issue of Kosovo is resolved tomorrow, that does not make Serbia a country that can function as a member of the European Union.

“Our negotiating framework is quite clear. We must first fulfil the transitional criteria in Chapters 23 and 24. Now that the laws in the field of justice have been adopted, we need to prove that we really sincerely fight for the independence of judges and prosecutors. In addition, the fight to prevent high corruption is another requirement according to which progress in this area will be measured.”, Međak said.

Unlike Međak, the President of the Board of Directors of the Center for European Policies (CEP) Srđan Majstorović believes that accepting the European proposal is a strategic choice that can improve Serbia’s chances to speed up the EU accession process in the coming period, but on the condition that it fulfils all known and publicly available criteria that apply to all countries applying for EU membership.

“At the moment, the EU views the Western Balkans as a geostrategically important region that, by remaining outside the borders of the Union, could be subject to various disruptive influences from its strategic competitors. Therefore, the process of integration of the region will continue regardless of the outcome of the talks between Belgrade and Pristina on the European proposal, but the dynamics and participants of the process will largely depend on the outcome of the talks”, Majstorović said.

He adds that by reaching an agreement, Serbia and Kosovo can get a chance to direct their common history in the direction of true normalization, which is possible only as a product of sincere determination to apply the best European solutions and standards.

According to Majstorović “the process of Europeanization, that is, the acceptance of these rules, values and standards and the equalization of our citizens with EU citizens in terms of respect for human and minority rights, is the best framework for normalization. If the representatives of Serbia and Kosovo miss this opportunity, there is a fear that the two countries could be sidelined until they find a better solution than the one offered. At the same time, in accordance with the stated geostrategic interests of the EU, the rest of the region could be put on an accelerated path to membership in order to limit the potentially negative effects of not reaching an agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, avoid prolonged uncertainty for the region and send a clear message to geopolitical competitors that the Western Balkans’ place is in the EU”.

The agreement should come at the end of the process

Speaking about the current negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, Vladimir Međak reminds that the model of “two Germanys” according to which the European proposal was created was previously mentioned as a final agreement, something that should have come at the end of the process.

“Things have changed since then. And because we have ‘eaten up’ time and our credibility, now we cannot say that the agreement with Kosovo means membership, but now the agreement with Kosovo is needed so that we do not fall out of the enlargement process. We again managed to make our negotiating capacity more difficult and move the process forward”, explained the EpuS Vice President.

Srđan Majstorović said for EWB that the European integration process is greatly simplified in Serbia, which is why metaphors about “moving the goalposts” or “changing the rules” are so often used to distort the image of the clearly and publicly defined conditions for EU membership.

“There is no possibility of choosing individual conditions for membership, the fulfilment of which is necessary for admission. Therefore, the normalization of relations with Pristina does not automatically mean that the remaining conditions for accession to the EU sanctions against Russia will be cancelled, or that the EU will abandon the demand to prove that democratic institutions are functioning in Serbia, that the rule of law is being implemented, that its economy is functioning according to market principles and that it has the ability to fulfil the obligations of a future member state of the Union”, Majstorović points out.

He assesses that when a solution to such a complex issue, such as the Kosovo issue, is sought, concessions are necessary on both sides.

“The potential resolution of this issue would certainly lead to the strengthening of Serbia’s position in accession negotiations with the EU. However, it is wrong to view the individual obligations in the process of Serbia’s accession to the EU as isolated conditions, the fulfilment of which automatically creates the conditions for accession to the Union”, says the President of the CEP Board of Directors.

How far Serbia is from EU membership?

Serbia started membership negotiations on January 21, 2014 at the first intergovernmental conference in Brussels. In December 2015, the first negotiation chapters were opened. Since then, 22 out of 35 chapters have been opened, while only two have been temporarily closed (chapters 25 and 26, opened at the same time and temporarily closed). In the meantime, the European Union changed the negotiation process and placed the related chapters in four negotiation clusters. Serbia opened the last cluster related to environmental protection in December 2021. In the meantime, apart from the criteria for progress that have been known for a long time, the beginning of the war in Ukraine and the decision of the Serbian authorities not to comply with EU sanctions against Russia, compliance with the EU’s foreign policy is becoming one of the conditions without which, judging by the messages from the EU, further progress is unlikely.

Srđan Majstorović believes that the EU enlargement policy has been updated because of Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the need for a strategic redefinition of relations with Russia. He adds that in such circumstances, Serbia’s alignment with the EU and alignment with its foreign policy is certainly very important for Serbia’s European path.

“However, it is extremely wrong to believe that reaching an agreement with Pristina will open the doors of the EU to a country where public prosecutors are harassed, writers are evacuated, activists, judges and journalists are intimidated and attacked, the media is (mainly) controlled, and state institutions do not function according to the Constitution and laws. The biased simplification of the conditions for Serbia’s accession to the Union has the sole function of manipulating the public, concealing delays in the implementation of assumed obligations and diverting attention from the accumulated problems with which the institutions fail to cope adequately” Majstorović points out.

Vladimir Međak points out that there is more and more talk within the EU about the year 2030, which could be the year of the new enlargement. According to him, only Serbia and Montenegro have that chance. However, Međak emphasizes that it could be that year for Serbia if all reforms are completed by June 2027.

“In order to enter the EU on January 1, 2030, all negotiations must be completed by June 2027. That’s only four more years, and we’ve “eaten up” eight years and haven’t even reached half of the negotiations”, states Međak, adding that for four negotiation chapters, Serbia did not even meet the transitional criteria for opening.

According to him, at this moment in the accession process, Serbia still has important highly political decisions to make if it wants to become a member of the EU. Those decisions include sanctions against Russia, the question of subsidizing foreign investors, and high corruption…

“The pillars of Serbian politics must be changed. These are all strategic decisions that must be made, and once they are made, Serbia must start acting on them. And we have been postponing making such decisions for ten years. After that, things that have been pending for decades, such as the environment and energy, must be completed. These are decisions that should have been made in 2015 or 2016, and we are talking about this in 2023” Međak said.

He assesses that the ideal period for reforms was from 2016 to 2020, when there was a stable majority in the National Assembly, cheap loans and a good economic climate in the EU, and Serbia did nothing during that period.

“It takes us five years to write a negotiating position in benign chapters, such as chapter 28 – consumer protection. We ate up that ideal time and now we have until June 2027 to finish everything, and in the meantime, we have presidential elections and at least one more parliamentary election with a strong political crisis” concludes Međak.

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