“In the wrong street”: why Serbia will not open any new enlargement chapters this year

Marko Savković

02. November 2020

“In the wrong street”: why Serbia will not open any new enlargement chapters this year

Author is dr Marko Savković, Executive Director at Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence

Without progress on key chapters, 23, 24 and 35, membership negotiations could grind to a halt. Making matters even worse, as a society we’ve become very “distanced” from the ideas of membership

Unfortunately, it is increasingly certain that Serbia will not open any new chapters in accession negotiations with the European Union this year. This is, by the way, the first year that’s happened since negotiations started in January 2014. There has been no progress in those key chapters, 23, 24 and 35 and, as is well known, without progress on these chapters membership negotiations can grind to a halt. At the same time, as Vlada Međak rightly noticed, we “imposed” additional criteria on ourselves: for example, how leading politicians communicate in public regarding the EU. Obviously badly, otherwise there would be no such criteria.

Making matters even worse, as a society we’ve become very “distanced” from the ideas of membership. Just look at that drop in support among young people, while Euroscepticism is completely mainstream as if we were a member state and not a candidate country, undermining the role and assistance that the EU provides… that’s why opening new chapters is so important. The continuity of the process is important, the impression that we’re moving towards something. However, closure is also important – I would remind you that, to date, we’ve provisionally closed only two chapters: 25 and 26 (education and science).

Kosovo has been used for too long as an excuse to strengthen authoritarian rule, render meaningless democratic institutions – above all the parliament – and weaken the role of oversight bodies

One can often hear that the EU is suffering from a crisis in the Western Balkans, in the form of a lack of credibility, and I believe Brussels is aware of that. That’s why its last strategic programme document from February 2018 was entitled “Towards a credible perspective on enlargement”. However, credibility is a two-way street. It is true that not much enthusiasm for further enlargement exists in the EU, especially in the context of the pandemic and post-pandemic period, when many will interpret this as an unnecessary cost in the context of economic recovery. The image of the Western Balkans isn’t great either: we can present peace and stability to each other as achievements, but during that same time some other parts of the world are developing rapidly, grabbing development opportunities, while people remain our most valuable “export product”. We have forgotten about democratisation, while hybrid regimes have strengthened their grip.

The negotiation process is a political process, but clear criteria are defined within it – you progress (both) according to your merits and there is no other excuse not to do that, except political interest. It is true that it takes too long and that there are too many opportunities for member states to slow down the process, due to various, often very political, reasons; but the successes of candidate countries in the field of reforms and critics undermine that argument. Just look at North Macedonia.

It is a fact that Serbia is in a specific situation with Kosovo – similar, but only similar, to the one in which Cyprus found itself on the eve of 2004. Of course, Belgrade’s refusal to continue the dialogue would also result in the suspension of accession negotiations (regardless of achievements on the other side, the “reform” side). But Kosovo has been used for too long as an excuse to strengthen authoritarian rule, render meaningless democratic institutions – above all the parliament – and weaken the role of oversight bodies. Hence the new criterion of “functioning democratic institutions” as a response to the situation in Serbia.

Photo: “Person inside blue steel mailbox” by Jude Beck

The post was originally published on CorD Magazine