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2023 European Commission Report on Serbia: Nothing new under the sun

This piece was originally published on BiEPAG blog.

The 2023 Report on Serbia provides a mixed picture of a country in its ninth year of EU accession negotiations still making only modest progress, while substantial advancement is missing. This leaves the country moderately prepared for EU membership, exactly the position it found itself almost 10 years ago (average level of preparedness has increased from 3,03 to dismal 3.05, according to the EWB).

Over the past 10 years Serbia has failed to produce significant and tangible progress towards the EU membership despite pledging at the first Intergovernmental Conference held in January 2014, that it would be ready to assume obligations deriving from the EU membership until 2018.

Five years later, the Report provides 160 pages of meticulous scaling of the progress that is hard to grasp by non-informed reader. For example, limited progress in the area of fight against organized crime can’t persuade citizens to neglect well documented ties between organized crime groups and individuals from/close to the Government; nor will some progress in the area of judiciary make citizens feel more protected and equal in front of the courts; let alone that citizens would recognize the difference of limited progress caused by hastily adopted media laws just days before dissolution of the Parliament in a society where media scene is being captured by political and economic interests.

Report positions that Serbia is expected to remain constructively engaged in a dialogue on normalization of relations with Kosovo and should display responsibility for bringing to justice perpetrators of Banjska, September 24 attack. Serbia is further expected to fully implement the Agreement on the path for normalisation signed in February 2023 in Brussels, and to adhere to the Implementation Annex from Ohrid from March 2023. Similarly to the rule of law chapters, lack of progress or backsliding in normalization talks with Kosovo may trigger the activation of balancing clause and temporary suspension of countries EU accession negotiations.

When it comes to the functioning of the Parliament, Report provides a chilling reminder of dysfunctional institution emptied of its purpose to represent all citizens, nurture dialogue and keep the Government accountable. Findings concerning threats, undue pressure, attacks on critical voices of individuals, journalists and civil society organizations, is also revealing divisive and intolerant nature of the incumbent regime. Serbian authorities are invited to take responsibility for proactive and objective communication on the EU and to address the issues of anti-EU narratives spread by numerous media outlets, some of them closely related to the ruling majority.

Furthermore, the Report is once again observing the lack of alignment with EU restrictive measures against Russia, which leaves a question mark over strategic choices Serbian authorities are making. In last year’s Report, Serbia’s lack of alignment with EU foreign and security policy was marked as “backsliding”. This year the EC Report concludes “no progress” in the same area which could be interpreted that backsliding was continued. This will likely hamper Serbian authorities wish to open negotiating Cluster 3 in December 2023.

It is worth noting that Serbia’s participation in the EU’s Growth Plan for Western Balkans could also be affected by the lack of commitment to resolve outstanding issues on normalization of relations with Kosovo and lack of progress regarding the principles of rule of law, functioning of democratic institutions, public administration reform etc. There is a serious risk of Serbia stalling at the end of the enlargement composition of the Western Balkans 6 should it fail to address the above mentioned issues as preconditions for participation in regional market, access to the EU’s Single Market and utilization of 6 billion EUR Reform and Growth Facility.

Serbia is currently under sort of a silent suspension of EU accession talks and hasn’t opened a single Chapter or Cluster over the past two years, regardless of the EC’s repeated recommendation to Council to open Cluster 3. Serbia’s EU integration process will continue to depend on countries respect of the principle of rule of law, dialogue on normalization of relations with Kosovo and alignment with EU’s foreign and security policy measures.

Entering the tenth year of EU accession negotiations with Government in its technical mandate and no ambassadorial representation in the EU, gives little reason to hold high expectations. On such policies, citizens will hand over their judgment on 17 December when yet another early elections are called for. It will be important date for continuation of Serbia’s EU integration path, and it might bring about change of practice of selective reading of EC Reports with eyes wide shut. Regardless, it has been long time since Serbian citizens were interested in what is written in EC Reports as evermore of them are becoming personally integrated with the EU by means of migration to more prosperous and politically stable EU Member States rather than waiting for the Godot in Serbia.

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