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Serbia on a wobbly road to EU membership


By Tereza Neuwirthova.

The Embassy of the Republic of Serbia, together with the Clingendael Institute hosted a high-level webinar on the topic of Serbia’s accession to the EU. In this virtual open dialogue, the speakers discussed the progress made so far, the key players in this process, as well as the next steps to allow for regaining momentum in 2021. While 2020 proved a difficult year for the accession process with Serbia, with no accession chapters having been opened, the current year is critical for the Republic of Serbia to progress on reforms and move closer to fulfilling the criteria for its EU membership.

The European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, H.E. Mr. Olivér Várhelyi, introduced in his speech the revised methodology, which opens avenues that allow for an enhanced process of Serbia’s EU accession. In the words of H.E. Mr. Várhelyi, the four main principles of this revised methodology which structure the EU’s approach in enlargement processes are: credibility, stronger political steer, predictability, and dynamism, the latter of which presents the core element when talking about Serbia.

“In order to inject more dynamism into the negotiations, we work in chapters that are clustered, whereby it is precisely this opening of chapters in clusters that is fundamentally important for Serbia.”

Mr. Várhelyi informed that the reforms being undertaken by the Serbian government are well discussed in the European Parliament, and similarly encouraged the Serbian parliament to make the reforms a priority topic of discussion. Acknowledging that Serbia’s economy showed remarkable resilience in the past year, with its economic growth outgrowing some European member states, the Commissioner encouraged more reforms in the country’s financial system.

Finally, H.E. Várhelyi remarked: “Bringing Serbia into the EU is our joint interest, and this has been underscored by the Covid-19 pandemic, which showed us how interconnected is the region of EU neighbourhood.”

A speech by H.E. Ms. Jadranka Joksimovic, the Minister of European Integration of the Republic of Serbia followed as the next keynote address of this high-level webinar. On the matter of the revised methodology, H.E. Ms. Joksimovic informed that;

“Serbia accepted it without knowing the exact contents, whereby the country showed a significant and strong level of confidence in the good intentions and good manners of the European Union concerning the enlargement process for candidates and potential candidates from the Western Balkans, including Serbia.”

Furthermore, H.E. Ms. Joksimovic acknowledged the dynamism which the opening of clusters of chapters brings, however the Minister stressed that Serbia’s accession process is very particular due to the country’s highly political issue the normalisation of BelgradePristina relations. This process, implemented through a mediated dialogue that is facilitated by the EU, is very sensitive and difficult for Serbia, and therefore additional attention must be paid to this subject matter in the enlargement process. Additionally, H.E. confirmed that Serbia’s government is resolved to make substantial progress on the rule of law area, freedom of media, prevention of corruption, fight against organised crime, as well as judicial reforms.

Finally, the Minister emphasised that; “Intergovernmental Conferences will be the right place to have high-level discussions about the EU member statesclear expectations from Serbia as an acceding country, and, on the other hand, a place where we can openly and friendly talk about our position on different issues, about a lot of challenges that we are facing, and to see how we can continue our EU accession process more efficiently. The IGC at the end of Portuguese Council Presidency will serve to realise that we have to actively understand each other and actively engage in the acceptance of the new methodology and how it will be applied in the further process.

After the keynote speeches followed a Q&A discussion with the participation of panelists-experts on the main topic of the webinar coming from various institutions, including Ms. Lise Gregoire, the EU Director at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ms. Milena Lazarevic, Program Director from the European Policy Center (CEP, Belgrade), and Mr. Christoph Schmidt, working as the Brussels correspondent at Trouw newspaper.

Ms. Lise Gregoire highlighted the bilateral ties between the Netherlands and Serbia, with the trade as well as FDI between the countries increasing, and affirmed that the relationship is important for both countries alike. Agreeing to the previously mentioned principle of credibility within the enlargement process, Ms. Gregoire underlined that the rule of law is the main guarantee of this, and as such is one of the key elements of the whole process. As it ensures an even stronger emphasis on the fundamentals such as the rule of law, The Netherlands looks very favourably upon the new methodology. Lastly, Ms. Gregoire expressed the hope for Serbia’s progress on reforms, as well as the need of more cooperation on corruption, media freedom and connectivity.

Contributing with a perspective from a Serbian think-tank, Ms. Milena Lazarevic outlined how the EU can provide more incentives and ways for positive change for Serbia in the process towards its membership of the Union, in which Serbia is prepared to play a constructive role.

In his contribution to the panel, Mr. Christoph Schmidt informed that the accession process with Serbia is currently not very high on the list of EU priorities, overshadowed by the post-pandemic recovery efforts and the EU Green Deal policy. With a sum up of the programme of the past and current Council of the EU presidencies, Mr. Schmidt also explained that the enlargement dossier is getting very politicised in many EU member states, which influences the ongoing accession processes to a great extent.

In their final remarks, the high-level guest speakers of this webinar concluded that the revised enlargement methodology indeed offers a window of opportunity for an enhanced accession process.  By allowing for a faster progress in the negotiations between the EU and Serbia, the benefits of the EU membership are bound to become available to Serbian citizens in the foreseeable future.

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