Serbia’s Bid For EU Membership: A Progress Report

By Mathilde Bonneau | 4 January 2011

To quote this document: Mathilde Bonneau, “Serbia’s Bid For EU Membership: A Progress Report”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 4 January 2011, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/988, displayed on 22 February 2020

Serbia is getting closer and closer to an official candidacy for EU membership. It is now waiting for the Commission to give the green light in 2011. In the meantime, one may read the Progress Report  which reviews the situation. True, Serbia has made strong steps so far, but at least two strides are needed: the arrest of war criminals Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadžić, and above all, a more constructive attitude towards Kosovo.

Marking a new phase in EU-Serbian relations since Serbia’s independence in 2006, the Republic of Serbia applied for membership of the European Union (EU) on December 22nd 2009, but does not yet hold the Commission’s status of candidate country. In February 2010, the Interim Agreement entered into force and ratification in national parliaments of the Stabilisation and Accession Agreement (SAA) began in June 2010. On October 25th 2010, the General Affairs Council forwarded Serbia’s application to the Commission; its opinion is due to be communicated in the second part of 2011. On November 9th 2010, the Commission adopted its Enlargement package, which included a Progress Report on Serbia’s candidacy.

"Serbia's place is in the EU. The door is open, but not unconditional.

These were Commissioner Füle’s words prior to the release in November of the Serbia 2010 Progress Report. The report underlines Serbia’s significant progress on its European path. The Commission acknowledges Serbia’s place to be within the EU, but maintains that some important conditions need to be fulfilled before Serbia officially becomes a candidate country, and eventually a member of the EU.

Overall, the Commission acknowledges the headway made but points out that additional efforts are required on all fronts. The report emphasises that Serbia has taken important steps towards meeting the political criteria, particularly regarding judicial reform. Democracy and the rule of law have been reinforced, and steps have been taken to improve the functioning of the parliament and the public administration. Moreover, significant progress has been made in the fight against organised crime. The Commission, however, notes serious shortcomings, for instance concerning the lack of transparency in the re-appointment procedure of judges and prosecutors. Additional efforts are required regarding public administration reform, as well as in the fight against corruption, the restructuring of the economy and the protection of human rights and minorities.

These are not insurmountable obstacles. None of the topics listed above will critically block the accession bid. Serbia is not ready to join the EU today, but it is not ruled out in the future if Serbia continues on the European path it has taken. However, more than a year passed between Serbia’s application for membership and the Council’s forwarding of the candidacy to the Commission. Responsible for the delay is the issue concerning Serbia’s cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Despite Serbia’s successful and active cooperation with the ICTY,the two remaining fugitives, Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadžić, are still at large.

This has long been an obstacle to Serbia’s EU bid as European governments refused to open negotiations. Nonetheless, despite the failure to arrest the two suspects, EU foreign ministers unblocked Serbia’s membership bid in October 2010. Indeed, the Netherlands - the last government still vetoing negotiations - dropped its blockade. However, the Dutch government has made clear that it would revive its veto at any point unless Belgrade tracked down the two fugitives and hand them over for trial. The report stresses that “full cooperation with the ICTY remains an essential condition for membership of the EU, in line with the Council conclusions of 25 October 2010.”

With one obstacle removed, another one may yet be forming. Although the report emphasises that Serbia has demonstrated a constructive approach towards reconciliation in the region, in particular with Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Commission also points out the need to improve relationships with Kosovo. Twenty-two out of twenty-seven member-states recognise the state of Kosovo; Spain, Slovakia, Greece, Cyprus and Romania have so far refused to recognise Kosovar independence. Considering this internal disunity, the EU can hardly consistently demand that Serbia recognise the state of Kosovo. As a result, the lowest-common denominator strategy is yet again applied: the EU partners have agreed that Serbia needs to demonstrate “a more constructive attitude towards Kosovo's participation in regional trade and cooperation." Following the UN General Assembly Resolution of September 9th 2010, the EU is pledging to “facilitate the process of dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina to promote cooperation, achieve progress on the path to the EU and improve the lives of people.”

Although the EU unblocked its position concerning the two fugitives, the situation concerning Kosovo may create complications in the future: what will happen if the EU some day demands - as a condition for accession - Serbia to recognize the state of Kosovo?

2011 - the year Croatia ends negotiations and Serbia begins.”

The declaration of Vuk Jeremić, Serbia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, is optimistic. For Serbian officials, 2011 is indeed an important year. The accession process, it is felt, needs to be started in order to continue reforms all round, and more importantly, in order to truly have an impact on people’s lives. Indeed, the EU’s demands blocking Serbia’s accession bid - more specifically that of tracking down the two war criminals - are seen to be unjust obstacles. There is a definite desire to cooperate with the ICTY - and the majority of citizens and officials acknowledge that the fugitives, when found, should be extradited - but this should not stand in the way of Serbia’s application. Serbia is eager to prove its reliability and commitment in every field, including but not restricted to this issue.

 

The Republic of Serbia’s main goal is to become an EU member-state as soon as possible, insists Zoran Vujić, the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs. This is not just to provide Serbia with prosperity and security today, but also for future generations. Serbia’s foreign policy priorities are to forge new relationships globally, specifically with the EU. Belgrade hopes one day to become not objects but actors of international security, beginning with regional security. In this, the Republic has already become a voice for reconciliation in the Balkans, alongside Croatia and Bosnia. The pivotal three - as Vuk Jeremić coins them - are the essential drivers of regional reconciliation.

Moreover, Belgrade is presenting itself as the main actor in the fight against organised crime and corruption. Indeed, Serbia, in its position at the geographical crossroads of illegal traffic and trade, is set to become organised crime’s main obstacle. Skilled institutions exist, but these are under-equipped and under-funded. EU assistance would make Serbia a tangible obstacle for criminals, thereby contributing to the stability of the region, and by extension, of Europe. Regional reconciliation will further aid to meet the necessity of a coordinated response from the entire region against organised crime. It is in Serbia’s role in regional stability and security that the EU stands to gain from Serbia’s accession argues Bojan Brkić, the Deputy Editor in Chief of Radio Television Serbia.

The issue of Kosovo is a markedly more sensitive issue. Recognising Kosovo’s independence is against Serbia’s Constitution, adopted in 2006. It is therefore an inconceivable prospect for Serbia. However, it is not reason to avoid diplomatic contacts, or to rule out any dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, Serbian officials argue. Indeed, daily life for the citizens still needs to be organised and regulated - and for that both the Serbian and Kosovar governments are needed. As the simple issues of daily life are dealt with, then negotiations may move to bigger, more controversial issues. As Vuk Jeremić argues, compromise has replaced confrontation. It is the first time after all, he adds, that such an issue has not provoked a war in the region - a sign of hope. But, Zoran Jeftić, the Deputy Minister of Defence, insists that this process will not work if it is perceived to be externally imposed. The EU is a welcomed mediator in the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo - and the UN General Assembly Resolution of September 9th 2010 was well received. Nonetheless, the prospect of the EU conditioning accession to the recognition of Kosovo is one dreaded in Belgrade. External pressures of internal change in Serbia have always had disastrous results - one needs only look at the 1990s for examples. Recognition would require amending the constitution, which is likely to exacerbate Serbian nationalism to such a point as to backtrack from the European path.

Serbian officials are quick to point out that Serbia will join the EU only when it is ready, and when the EU is ready too. They acknowledge that reforms are still needed - and although substantial progress has been made - this is just the beginning of the road. When asked what Serbia needed in the future, Zoran Vujić answered that Serbia needs time; time to reform, to adapt, to modernise. Serbia will continue to reform not because of the EU, but for itself - to better Serbia. Membership, Zoran Vujić confesses, will come when it comes.  It should not be forced. Serbia acknowledges that the EU is currently dealing with other internal issues, but warns that the enlargement process should go on, and official accession negotiations should be started soon (in 2011 it is hoped), or the impetus in Serbia will be lost. Both Serbia and the EU need time - neither are ready today. But the process should not be abandoned - when the EU is ready, it will look back at Serbia and, it is hoped, the EU will see a prettier and better Serbia, ready for accession.

Outlook for 2011

Whatever 2011 will bring, it is clear that Serbia’s bid is advancing through EU channels. The Commission’s opinion on Serbia’s application is due in the second part of the year. Although the capture of Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadžić is still high on the agenda - and Serbia’s cooperation with the ICTY closely monitored - it no longer poses an obstacle to the accession application. The situation over Kosovo - as of yet - does not pose an obstacle. The EU has demanded that Serbia be “constructive” in its dealings with the new state, and Belgrade’s willingness to participate in a EU-brokered dialogue with Pristina demonstrates a certain readiness to do so. However, Serbia firmly refuses to recognise Kosovo’s independence, and with five EU member states also refusing this is still a sustainable position. The situation will certainly become more complicated if the EU, one day, begins demanding Serbia to be even more "constructive" - to recognize the state of Kosovo.

 

To go further

 

Nouvelle Europe website

 

 

Readings

 

LSE public debates

  • Ten Years After Milosevic: How can Serbia Contribute to the Stabilisation of the Western Balkans? on November 10th 2010; Podcast
  • Balkans 2020: The Ministerial Debate. on November 18th 2010; Podcast

 

Photo : Serbian Foreign Minister, Vuk Jeremic, by European Parliament, on flickr

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