The European Commission’s (EC) 2022 Country Report on Serbia (Report) provides an objective state of affairs of the country that began EU accession negotiations eight years ago. Unfortunately, especially for the citizens of Serbia, this picture shows the confusion, indecisiveness, uncertainty and lack of willingness of its leaders to unequivocally decide in which direction Serbia wants to go.
The Report tells the story of a candidate that has been stagnating for several years in a row, in terms of meeting the basic criteria for EU membership. The degree of preparedness for EU membership in this year’s Report remains unchanged and unacceptably low after eight years since the beginning of accession negotiations despite recording “limited” or “some progress” in certain areas. These modest results are primarily due to a lack of interest and political determination to improve the situation in Serbia through aligning it with the EU accession criteria.
The findings of this year's Report are marked by two key factors – first, Russian aggression against Ukraine and its impact on the situation in Europe; and second, the election process in Serbia. Instead of recognizing Russian aggression as an historical moment to detach from Russia’s influence for good and unequivocally turning towards Europe, Serbian leadership opted for the tactic of waiting and balancing between Russia's dubious support for the status of Kosovo as well as its objective dependence on Russian energy supplies on the one hand, and the fact that Serbia's development and economy depend on trade relations with the EU and investments coming from its members, on the other.
This tactical choice weakened further the already undermined reputation of the country. The EC assessed Serbia has regressed in regard to Chapter 31 (Common Foreign and Security Policy) compared to the previous period. This is the first time EC used this judgment in Serbia’s EU accession process. The level of compliance with the EU's common positions in the field of foreign and security policy fell from 64% in 2021 to 45% in August 2022. Serbia failed to join the EU’s restrictive measures against Russia, although it did join the EU in the UN General Assembly and Council of Europe in condemnation of Russian aggression.
Serbia continued to maintain high-level contacts and sign agreements with Russia simultaneous with the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, while claiming that it remains dedicated to EU membership. By doing so, Serbia continued to express a geopolitical disorientation that continues to confuse European partners, spreads unease amongst its neighbours and makes it untrustworthy.
Early parliamentary elections and regular presidential elections are the second factor that influenced the findings of this year's EC report on Serbia. The Report assesses that the elections were peaceful, but that there were irregularities, pressure on voters, unequal access to the media during the pre-election campaign in favour of the ruling party etc. Although the elections brought opposition parties back to parliament, Serbia remains a deeply divided society still.
Early elections made Parliament non-functional for the last six months (except when the inauguration of the president was organized), which retarded the legislative process and harmonization of national legislation with EU acquis. Extraordinary elections in Serbia have become a political instrument of governance to render meaningless the role of parliament, the exercise of its power, as well as the mandate and integrity of its members.
When it was working, offensive language towards political opponents, journalists, civil society organizations and activists was regularly used in parliamentary sessions by members of the ruling coalition. Unfortunately, the adoption of the Code of Conduct for deputies did not lead to the punishment of inappropriate behavior.
When it comes to Serbia's ability to take on the obligations deriving from EU membership, Serbia's evident stagnation is reflected in the fact that for the first time there is not one of the 33 chapters in which "good progress" was recorded. Moreover, "certain progress" was achieved only in 12 chapters. In the largest number of chapters "limited progress" was recorded, while in three chapters a complete absence of any progress was noted.
The situation regarding freedom of expression remains in a state of stagnation that began in 2015, and threats and violence against journalists are causing concern. From the perspective of its readiness for EU membership, Serbia remained at the same level as in previous years. It is an indicator of stagnation due to the lack of political ambition and its leadership’s capacity to focus more decisively on key EU accession requirements.
After a full six months since the elections it seems that the new government of Serbia will soon be appointed. The question is how this new/old Government will interpret this Report. Dialogue with Kosovo, the functioning of democratic institutions, the rule of law and harmonization with the EU's foreign policy will continue to be crucial for the pace of Serbia's European integration in the coming period. In last year's review of the EC Report I expressed my doubts about the EC’s approach, which tried to motivate Serbian authorities with use of somewhat softened vocabulary.
The context in which the EC’s Report is published this year, especially the geopolitical one, is very different. This was clearly reflected in the language of the Report, which, in a more concrete way, criticized statements “by some government representatives” which were not in line with Serbia’s strategic goal of EU membership. However, it takes at least two to tango. The EU has to walk the walk and regain its own credibility in the region by staying firm on issues such as respect of the EU’s founding values, both internally and in candidate countries.
There is still doubt as to whether EU enlargement policy will succeed in regaining some transformative impact on candidates by using the same old tools. In this historical moment new and innovative approaches to the EU’s enlargement policy (as one of the EU’s key strategic policies) are badly needed to restart and re-energize the process on a more credible basis.