The start of membership negotiations with Serbia is being welcomed by the MEPs, who are monitoring developments in this extremely important to the enlargement towards the Western Balkans country. At the same time, the large challenges to Serbia itself, as well as for the European Union, are being acknowledged. All three MEPs whom euinside spoke to in Strasbourg last week, during the plenary meeting of the EP, marked as most important challenges the relations with Russia, the state of democracy in Serbia, and the bilateral relations in the region. All this to the background of the difficult situation the European Union finds itself in at the moment. All three MEPs agreed that the decision of the Commission and the Council the negotiations with Serbia should start first of all with Chapter 35, which covers relations with Kosovo, was correct and further appealed that the key Chapters for the negotiation process 23 and 24, which cover rule of law, fundamental rights and liberties, and media freedom, are also opened this year.
On January 28th, the MEPs of the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament will review for the first time the report on Serbia, prepared by the country's Rapporteur David McAllister (EPP, Germany). He believes that the opening of the first two chapters of the negotiations with Serbia is a huge success for the country. He expressed hope that more chapters would be opened this year. David McAllister has positive attitude towards Serbia, where the leading party in the ruling coalition – Serbian Progressive Party – is part of the EPP family. According to him, Serbia has achieved a lot, but will not be spared criticism. The Rapporteur’s biggest concern is about media freedom in Serbia. The fight against corruption remains a “huge task” for all high ranking officials in the country, as is the fight against organised crime.
It is necessary to boost the independence of the judiciary; independent judges are needed in a system, which is accountable. Serbia is aware that it has a long way to go before it meets “the very high European standards”. This is exactly why the country needs to start negotiations on chapters 23 and 24, so fieldwork can begin on these so difficult chapters, further said the Rapporteur. He feels the Western Balkans region has gone a long way over the last several years regarding bilateral relations. He thinks the situation in the region is unique. McAllister pointed out several positive new steps, like the visit of PM Aleksandar Vučić in Zagreb for the inauguration of President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, the meetings with the Bosnian leadership, and the historic visits with the PM of Albania. The dialogue with Priština is also very important.
At the same time the Rapporteur finds it completely incomprehensible that Serbia is welcoming war criminals with full honours. Another problem is the relationship between Belgrade and Moscow. “We are a Union of values and we share the same foreign and security policy. Serbia and EU have a lot of similar views but not in all fields especially when it comes to our policy towards Russia”, said the MEP, carefully choosing his wording. He was optimistic about Serbia gradually aligning its foreign policy with that of the EU. David McAllister answered cautiously the question whether there is geopolitics in the region. He said geopolitics existed in all parts of the world, but admitted the Balkans were always a very important part for Europe and that large countries in the world have their own interests. The Western Balkans are in the heart of Europe and it is inexplicable why six countries are blocked on the map, he said further.
The accession of all countries of the Western Balkans to the EU will be a huge step towards the unification of the continent. In any case, he said, each country is free to choose its own direction, “but we would like encourage all six of them to join a family of nations and values and what EU stands for - democracy, tolerance, liberal open societies, the equality of man and women, social market society, for other standards.” At this very moment, those values are being put to a very difficult test, as the case with Poland shows. David McAllister, however, is rather optimistic, counting out all the crises the EU needs to deal with. And these are Russia’s behaviour, international terrorism, migration, instability in the southern neighbourhood, especially some states in Northern Africa and the Middle East, the problems in the euro area and especially in Greece. The fact that Great Britain, which is the third largest country in the EU in population size, the second strongest economy, and the largest military power in the EU is planning to leave also brings in an air of crisis.
At the same time, however, the EU has always come out stronger from any crisis. Mr McAllister gave an example with Jacques Delors’ initiative for the creation of the common market, which gave the EU a new drive after a period of dejection during the 1980’s. The creation of the euro is also a result of a phase of disappointment and break with illusions. The euro area and Schengen are the most important integration steps. “I would say, yes, we're going through a difficult time, but, in the end, I’m optimistic that Europe can be even stronger than it was before the crisis”. This will be beneficial to a country like Serbia as well, he is convinced. David McAllister expressed hope that the snap election in Serbia will not hinder reforms and will not result in a change of the country’s course.
A shadow Rapporteur on Serbia is Slovenian MEP Tanja Fajon (Socialists and Democrats). She hailed the decision to first open Chapter 35 with Serbia. “If I look back into the history of EU enlargement, I can also say that the EU does not want any new members with unresolved territorial issues, which also have significant political connotation”. Tanja Fajon was also positively inclined as a whole towards Serbia and the work of the government. As a former journalist, however, she expressed concern about the state of the media environment in the country. She proposed amendments to David McAllister’s report, having to do with the rule of law, minorities’ protection, youth, and the media.
Tanja Fajon shares Mr McAllister’s view that there is geopolitics everywhere, but reminded that Serbia’s decision to become a member of the EU was not necessary. “Given its history of being between East and West, Serbia could also choose some other direction. From this perspective, we could talk about a geostrategic decision. According to me, the right one”, said the Slovenian MEP in her e-mail interview. She refused to comment on the participation of Serbian PM Aleksandar Vučić in the celebration of the national holiday of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was named unconstitutional, but pointed out that political leaders were responsible for their own decisions. Tanja Fajon is concerned that the snap elections in Serbia could affect the integration process, for they could slow down reforms. She expressed hope that the elections will not interfere with the positive dynamic and momentum that Serbia got with the opening of the first negotiation chapters.
Croatian MEP Jozo Radoš (ALDE) was far more critical. He voiced his indignation against the Commission's report of last year being too unspecific. Not just the Commission but the European Parliament as well must approach this issue in far greater detail, because when there are too many general formulations then there are no clearly set targets and thus no assessment can be made on progress. The report needs to be far more specific. It talks about the independence of media, the work of the judiciary, and the weak role of Parliament, but does not say what needs to be done. In his opinion, the report should say what law needs to be adopted, what institutions need to be created, and in six months or a year it should be checked whether Serbia had followed the recommendations. He thinks that the report on Montenegro is far more specific.
Jozo Radoš backed the decision that the negotiations with Serbia begin with Chapter 35, but pointed out that there is no way to accept in the EU countries which do not recognise each other. Jozo Radoš, who is a member of the foreign affairs committee of the EP, is of the opinion that the relationship of Serbia and Russia is a great challenge to the EU. Whether Russia has the power to be an active factor in the Western Balkans region, how big its power is are some very important questions, he thinks. At the moment, Serbia is sitting in two chairs and is playing two mutually exclusive cards. This cannot go on much longer. The EU must not allow in a country, whose foreign affairs orientation is opposite to common Union policy. The Croatian MEP presumes that Serbia could blackmail the Union with a potential veto regarding Russia, or look for concessions because of its relations with Russia. The EU must not allow this, warned Mr Radoš.
Croatia was the last country to join the EU. This happened in 2013. Comparing the hardships and challenges, Jozo Radoš is of the opinion that reforms in Serbia are going to be much more complicated and difficult, for, in his words, Serbia is at a lower step in democratic development and democratic institutions compared to Croatia at the moment when it began negotiations in 2005. One of the problems that Serbia will face will be the resistance against large-scale reforms that the country will run into. Another problem is namely the country’s connections with Russia. This is a problem Croatia did not have. The relationship with Kosovo will also be a challenge, as well as the one with Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the issue of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s integrity is on the line and Serbia’s support for this integrity.
The Serbian government is not placing these questions currently, but in time they might emerge. Sharp messages, coming from Republika Srpska, are not supported by the Serbian government, but are not denounced either. This is a problem, says Mr Radoš, for the disintegration of a country like Bosnia and Herzegovina could hardly go without problems, which includes new conflicts. The EU must not allow this, advised the Croatian MEP. The Rapporteur on Bosnia and Herzegovina in the EP Cristian Dan Preda also warned in an interview for euinside that Serbia sits in two chairs between the EU and Russia, which is especially evident in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Jozo Radoš commented for euinside the latest series of tensions in the relations between Serbia and Croatia. In his words, these relations have a sinusoidal development. He feels the tension around the arming of Croatia is a fabricated problem for domestic consumption. The relations between such important countries like Serbia and Croatia should not be used for day-to-day political moves. Jozo Radoš believes that the problem with Croatia’s arming, as well as the refugees episode during the summer, are both an indication of immaturity of domestic relations in both countries, but especially in Serbia.
*The interview with David McAllister is in English, and with Jozo Radoš is in Croatian
Translated by Stanimir Stoev