At the end of August, during the Bled Strategic Forum, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, pointed out that the European Union and the candidate countries for EU membership should be ready for enlargement by 2030. A few weeks later, on September 19, the German-French working group of experts published a report on the reform and enlargement of the Union, in which one of the goals is also the readiness of the EU for a new enlargement in 2030, insisting that the candidates must fulfil all the necessary conditions, without possible shortcuts on the way to full membership. In these circumstances, the question of the candidates’ willingness to achieve that goal by the proposed date is open again.
For many years, Serbia, together with Montenegro, was truly a leader in the region in terms of European integration, and in 2014 it started accession negotiations. Nine years later, however, the process has slowed considerably and there is no end in sight.
The latest Progress report from 2022 of the European Commission for Serbia shows that the degree of readiness remained unchanged compared to the previous two years. Serbia is stagnating in the process of European integration, and in the past year, for the first time, there was no negotiating chapter in which “good progress” was achieved, while on the other hand, in the said report, for the first time, the Commission noted a setback in one negotiating chapter – chapter 31 which deals with foreign, security and defence policy. Serbia did not comply with any package of sanctions introduced to the Russian Federation since the beginning of its aggression against Ukraine.
According to the evaluation of the European Stability Initiative on the readiness for membership in the European Union, published in March this year, and based on the report of the European Commission, on a scale from 0 to 4, the level of preparedness of Serbia at the given moment is 2.
Is the year 2023 a realistic goal?
Minister for European Integration Tanja Miščević said for European Western Balkans that Serbia has been in the process of European integration for more than two decades and that a lot has been done in that field so far. Miščević believes that Serbia can absolutely be ready for EU membership by 2030.
“Our plan is to fully harmonize all remaining and new system laws with EU legislation in the upcoming period, more precisely by 2025, and to demonstrate their effects in practice by 2027 so that we can complete the negotiation process and prepare an accession agreement “, the minister for European integration points out, adding that these are the basic elements of the road map for Serbia.
On the other hand, the vice president of the European Movement in Serbia, Vladimir Međak, emphasizes that, in fact, there are two issues. The first issue is whether, in theory, Serbia could be ready for EU membership, and he claims that it could be to a significant extent.
“In order to become a member in 2030, Serbia must reach that acceptable level by the middle or end of 2027, when the Accession Treaty would be signed, which would then be ratified in 2028 and 2029,” states Međak.
However, another question is whether that is realistic, where his attitude is more negative.
According to him, it is not very likely that Serbia will do within 4 years what it should have done in the previous nine years under more favorable circumstances.
“What prevented Serbia from being fully aligned with EU rules and standards and to wait for enlargement to return to the focus of the EU from that position?” The only answer is the lack of willingness to do it, and I don’t see that this willingness suddenly appeared after nine years,” underlined the vice-president of the European Movement in Serbia.
What are the biggest obstacles ahead of Serbia?
When it comes to the key challenges Serbia faces on the way to membership in the European Union, both Tanja Miščević and Vladimir Međak pointed to the same aspects of reforms in the area of the rule of law, work on the independence of the judiciary, the fight against corruption and freedom of the media.
Minister Miščević claims that the foundations have been laid in the past period, and she singles out the constitutional reform and the adoption of new judicial laws in 2022, as well as the current innovation of the strategic document for the fight against corruption and media laws.
Vladimir Međak, however, believes that in the past ten years, Serbia has moved away from the EU functioning model and has experienced a decline in all world rankings in the domains of democracy, the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organized crime.
“Solving those things is now much more demanding than 10 years ago when those problems did not reach today’s proportions,” adds Međak.
In his opinion, at the moment when the EU approaches enlargement as a geopolitical issue, the Union will focus on those countries that are possibly ready to become members.
“Serbia will not be the first or even the second or third choice for an exemplary candidate that deserves EU membership and whose membership will not be a problem for the EU itself,” emphasizes Međak, pointing out that the list of “obstacles” for Serbia is long, but that they basically stem from the lack of real political will of the Serbian leadership.
The current geopolitical circumstances bring to the fore another issue – the alignment of Serbia with the foreign policy of the European Union, primarily in the context of relations with Russia after the aggression against Ukraine.
While Vladimir Međak points out that due to its attitude towards Russia, Serbia will not be on the list of countries that can be trusted by many, and Minister Miščević confirms that this issue plays a very important role in political evaluation, but she still adds that there are other important issues in the domain of foreign and security policies.
“We are trying to explain that the sharing of values in foreign policy goes much further than the percentage of compliance – that it is an insistence on preserving the principles of international law and not avoiding sanctions, energy diversification, but also humanitarian and technical assistance to Ukraine,” believes Minister Miščević.
Furthermore, the internal situation in the European Union and the need for reforms insisted on by certain member states before the eventual enlargement in 2030 should also be taken into account.
Tanja Miščević reminds that, especially now, the accession process is a political process and that “how successfully and quickly the member states manage to agree on their internal reforms, the target year may or may not be a reality.”
Vladimir Međak, on the other hand, believes that, for these reasons, it is likely that the enlargement itself will take place gradually in terms of entry into certain EU policies, first of all, the single market, until potential comprehensive membership.
“Serbia, in a very small number of segments, is currently close to being ready to participate in such policies,” concludes Međak.