The EU has taken steps to protect itself from the risks of expansion, but must not lose sight of the value that countries like Serbia can add to the European project.
How do we in Serbia see the EU? The simple answer is ‘about the same as we in Serbia are seen by the EU’ - with lots of prejudice, without understanding the wider context, and framed with the perceptions and memories from the 1990s.
There is, of course, one huge difference. For Serbia, becoming an EU member state is a strategic goal, as it is a means towards becoming a more developed and organized modern democratic state. The same perception of the purpose is not so present in Europe, and that difference shapes many misunderstandings.
This problem goes beyond the case of Serbia and the Western Balkans. No longer is enlargement considered to be an EU priority, as it was at the time of the accession of Central and Eastern European countries. Indeed, for many member states, enlargement is now seen as contrary to the EU’s interests.
According to this view, enlargement is a burden for the EU budget as well as for EU institutions. Western Balkan countries are seen as unstable and it is questioned whether they share European values. According to Eurobarometer data, less than a third of European citizens see further enlargement as being in their interests.
This opinion causes EU governments to be very cautious about enlargement, and reluctant to make strong statements in support of Western Balkan accession. This is a shame. Serbia and others are undertaking complex and challenging reforms to harmonize their political, economic and legal systems with those of the EU. Lukewarm support from Europe – and a lack of assurance about the outcome – makes this domestic task even more difficult.
In his State of Union speech in September 2017, the President of the European Commission took a much-needed bold step forward by introducing the ‘Perspective 2025’ process. This is designed to accelerate accession negotiations for the Western Balkan ‘front-runners’, namely Serbia and Montenegro.
This strategy, in the form of a credible enlargement perspective, was presented February 6th 2018. It is a positive, forward looking perspective for further EU enlargement after Brexit, with a plan for supporting candidates through six flagship initiatives. These include strengthening the rule of law, security and migration engagement, support for socio-economic development, increasing energy and transport connectivity, the digital agenda, and support for reconciliation and good neighborly relations.
However, the strategy has also come with a series of “safety brakes” outlined below. For Serbia to become a member of the EU by 2025, it will therefore have to meet a host of new conditions. These are results of previous experiences the EU had with accession talks and especially with what happened with newcomers after achieving membership (problems with democratic backsliding, breach of the rule of law and fundamental values).
‘Fundamentals first’ approach to negotiations - This puts the Rule of Law at the centre of the negotiation process (introduced for the first time with the Negotiation Framework for Montenegro, and then for Serbia). Reform of judiciary, the fight against corruption, fundamental rights, but also migration, visa policy, border protection, and the fight against terrorism, trafficking, drugs and organized crime, create the core of the EU concept of the Rule of Law.
The concept Fundamentals First has been developed further, emphasizing the importance of public administration and economic governance. Those are the most difficult reforms because they mean reforming the mindset and habits.
The EU has also introduced new mechanism to monitor the implementation of the harmonized laws and practices through the so-called Track Record mechanism. Respect for the rule of law is thus at the very centre of criteria that have to be fulfilled in order to prove respect for European values and to become a member of the EU.
Renewed new approach for Serbia – The Negotiation Framework for Serbia introduced for the first time a new position and nature of Chapter 35. In our case, this chapter is not only about any other business not covered with other negotiation chapters, but is focused on monitoring the implementation of all agreements reached during the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. This is not about the status of states, but about the normalization of life for people in a disputed territory.
The European Union, as a facilitator of the dialogue, has to be status neutral because there is no consensus on this issue among all 28 members. There is a serious deficiency in this approach since it does not provide guidelines for a situation when one of the parties chooses to obstruct the dialogue. This, alongside the somewhat unclear system of reporting on dialogue by EEAS, leaves the door open for different readings of the situation on the ground by the EUMS.
More political and technical accession process – Compared with previous rounds of enlargement, including up to some level even the newest one with Croatia (2013), our accession talks engage Member States much more.
That could have two opposite results: first, it could be easier to achieve membership if member states are included from the very beginning in following Serbia’s reforms. Being constructive, firstly, they can contribute through technical support and secondly, by regular monitoring they can provide additional legitimacy to the enlargement process and present it to their citizens. On the other hand, that could introduce more bilateral issues into the negotiation process, or even blockage of the negotiation process from neighboring member states, which is already happening.
Early acceptance of membership obligations – Even at the early stages of accession talks, Serbia and other Western Balkan countries are tasked with introducing some elements of obligations of EU member states (including some which do not even apply to all member states).
The obligation to prepare an Economic Reform Programme in consultation with the EU (EMU light), or early legal alignment to enter the multilateral Energy Community and Transport Community, interconnectivity and TEN, are some of those examples. Those are the novelties in the accession talks, without precedent in previous rounds of EU Enlargement.
Some would argue that this is too much of a burden for candidates; others that the obligations are designed to increase their capacity so as to be better prepared for the demands of membership itself. Serbia is an example of the latter: through its early acceptance of membership obligations (such as fingerprinting migrants), Serbia made a valuable contribution to managing the migration crisis - more than some member states.
Regional initiatives – For the Western Balkans, owing to their recent turbulent past, regional cooperation is one of the essential criteria for membership, and regional initiatives are growing in numbers (according to some data, there are now more than 70 cross-border initiatives).
The introduction of the Berlin Process in 2014 gave rise to a suspicion that regional integration is intended to become a substitute for EU membership. But some of those initiatives are now becoming intrinsic parts of the negotiation process, and to a certain point regional integration now represents a new condition for membership. This can be accepted as long as those initiatives facilitate better preparation of the candidate countries to assume obligations of EU Member States.
I argue that all of those points provide safety mechanisms for EU citizens to rest assured that newcomers will have to meet very strict conditions before they can become members. As such, further EU enlargement to the Western Balkans is not something to be feared. Rather, it can help spur further integration in several important EU common policies, including CSDP, Schengen Area, Energy Policy, Transport and Environment Policy.
This is in the best economic, political and security interests of both EU member states and Western Balkan countries. Understanding this symbiosis is the way to improve the way we see each other.
Prof.dr Tanja Miscevic is Head of the Negotiation Team for Accession of Serbia to the EU
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.