The European Commission report on Serbia, released last week, has noted overall limited progress in key chapters related to the rule of law. The term “limited progress” implies that some steps have been taken, but there is a lot of space that remains for improvement. However, pro-government media in Serbia have portrayed the report positively, with no mention of the criticisms raised by Brussels.
The news about the findings of the EC’s report was first published by the Tanjug news agency on Monday, two days before the report’s official release. In the article “European Commission confirms Serbia’s progress in crucial areas, Tanjug framed the narrative that the findings are positive. Other pro-government media, as well as the Radio Television of Serbia, reported Tanjug’s news.
“The European Commission, in its new report for 2023, acknowledged Serbia’s progress in the areas of judiciary and media, and there has been improvement in the assessment of alignment with the EU’s foreign policy”, Tanjug wrote.
Euractiv Serbia, a portal whose content has been in the hands of Igor Žeželj who has close ties to the authorities in Serbia, conveys a similar sentiment, stating that the European Commission will acknowledge Serbia’s progress in the reforms in media, judiciary, and migration policy. Unlike Tanjug, Euractiv suggests that there are still some issues, but overall portal presents that Serbia is doing well when it comes to the necessary reforms.
“It is believed that our reforms will be further assessed due to two key challenges Serbia is currently facing, namely Banjska and its relations with Russia. However, despite these challenges, Serbia has achieved significant success in implementing the recommendations. In other words, there is no backsliding, only progress”, Euractiv reported.
Citizens of Serbia could hear from the highest state officials that there is no space for concerns and that the report findings are positive. The only issues that the government mentioned are those related to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.
“I think it’s important to note progress in 31 out of 34 areas. It’s crucial for our democracy to see improvement in the media sphere. This is important due to the numerous falsehoods that were spread in the previous period. We should not expect any revolutionary changes; it’s important to move forward on the European path, but we must also preserve our vital national interests. For me, the most important indicators are economic ones”, stated Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.
Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Brnabić expressed gratitude to the European Commission for their dedicated work, stating that the progress has been noted in all key areas.
“Progress has been recorded in all key areas – rule of law, economy, and fundamental rights. Only in three areas has stagnation been noted, such as fisheries, where we have not adopted an action plan”, Brnabić said.
What does the European Commission report say?
The European Commission assigns two descriptive ratings each year for every negotiating chapter. The first pertains to the overall level of preparedness of the candidate country in that area, while the second assesses the progress made in the last year.
Regarding the first rating, the level of preparedness, there are five categories: “early stage,” “some level of preparedness,” “moderate level,” “good level,” and “very advanced stage.”
If these ratings are converted into numbers from 1 to 5, and the average rating for Serbia across 33 negotiating chapters is calculated, it amounts to 3.05 this year. This represents a slight change compared to last year when it was 3.03.
Only in Chapter 17: Economic and Monetary Policy, has the level of preparedness been raised from “moderate level” (rating 3) to the rating of “between moderate and good level” (rating 3.5). This achievement, as stated in the report, was accomplished through the adoption of new fiscal rules systems through amendments to the Budget System Law in December 2022.
Concerning the second descriptive rating assigned by the European Commission, progress ratings fall into six categories: “backsliding,” “no progress,” “limited progress,” “some progress,” “good progress,” and “very good progress.”
In last year’s report, Serbia received a “backsliding” rating for the chapter on foreign policy, and no chapter received a “good progress” rating. This year, “good progress” has been recorded in one of the 33 chapters, specifically in Chapter 18: Statistics, attributed to the successful conduct of the population census, as noted, in accordance with EU and international standards.
The report states that the political polarization remained evident and was further deepened after the tragic mass shootings in early May. Serbia still needs to address a number of long-standing recommendations by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) and Council of Europe bodies concerning the electoral framework.
According to the EC, Debates in Parliament were marked by tensions between the ruling majority coalition and the opposition. The code of conduct was not systematically applied, and the frequent use of inflammatory language was not penalized. Sanctions and fines were only issued to opposition MPs.
The report says that Further efforts are needed to ensure systematic and genuine cooperation between the government and civil society. “An enabling environment for establishing, running and financing civil society organizations still needs to be created on the ground, as verbal attacks and smear campaigns against such organizations continued, including by high-level officials”.
When it comes to the fight against corruption, EC noted that overall, limited progress was made during the reporting period, including on last year’s recommendations.
Regarding freedom of expression, limited progress was made in the reporting period. “The police and the prosecution services reacted swiftly to several cases of attacks and threats, working with the standing working group on the safety of journalists. However, cases of threats, intimidation, hate speech and violence against journalists remain a concern, as is the increase of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP), notably launched by members of national and local authorities, that may produce a chilling effect including self-censorship”, EC stated.