Serbia easily digests Commission’s ‘progress report’

Serbian PM Aleksandar Vučić [R] and Neighbourhood Commissioner Johannes Hahn. [European Commission]

The government in Belgrade is generally satisfied with the European Commission’s annual report on Serbia’s progress in European integration published on Wednesday (9 November), even though it might not agree with all of its conclusions. EURACTIV Serbia reports.

This year’s report positively assessed the progress Serbia made on the economic side and in certain other areas, as well as its role in establishing cooperation in the region and conduct regarding the refugee crisis.

However, as far as the rule of law is concerned, the Commission finds that Serbia still faces big challenges: there is still political interference in the judiciary, corruption is a serious problem and there is no progress in media freedoms. Other weak points are the relations with Kosovo and Serbia’s close ties with Russia. Serbia did not join the EU’s sanctions against Moscow.

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The report notes that Serbia has not adjusted to the European Council’s decisions regarding the restrictive measures against Russia, but admits that the country is not asked to do so immediately, but rather to “progressively” adapt to the Common Foreign and Security Policy until its accession to the Union.

When it comes to Kosovo, Serbia is expected to work on implementing the agreements it has reached with Pristina in the EU-mediated dialogue on the normalisation of relations.

“Continued efforts are needed to implement the agreements already reached with Kosovo. The steps taken should have a positive and concrete impact on the everyday life of citizens in both Serbia and Kosovo,” the EC report reads.

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Serbian PM: ‘Realistic and good report’

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić said yesterday that the Commission’s report for Serbia was realistic and well-composed, although he personally might not agree with each of the statements made in the document.

“It is important for us that we are making progress in almost all of the chapters. It is also important that the European Union very positively assesses Serbia’s political role in the region and the role it has had in the migrant crisis,” Vučić told a press conference at the government headquarters, after EU Delegation to Serbia Head Michael Davenport handed him the report.

Vučić added that there was much more to be done, such as the continued reforming of the judiciary, which must become more efficient and completely independent.

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He further said he had seen objections concerning a lack of cooperation with the Hague tribunal, over the failure to extradite three Serbian Radical Party members for, as he called it, “a strange criminal offense,” as well as concerning the Serbian Progressive Party’s cooperation with United Russia.

The Hague tribunal indicted three officials of the Serbian Radical Party, Petar Jojić, Vjerica Radeta and Jovo Ostojić, for influencing witnesses and obstructing justice in the process against the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Šešelj.

The Higher Court in Belgrade decided earlier this year that there were no legal grounds for their arrest and extradition, because the national law on cooperation with the Hague tribunal envisages the obligation of extraditing only war crimes indictees, not individuals accused of contempt of court.

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The Commission report reads that four Serbian political parties, among them the Serbian prime minister’s Serbian Progressive Party, signed a declaration on cooperation with the United Russia party at the latter’s June congress in Moscow. It adds that high-level contacts with Russia continued with regular bilateral visits as well as military technical cooperation between Serbia and Russia.

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Vučic stressed Serbia’s commitment to the European path. “Serbia is on the European path, we want to be part of the European community and will fight for that… Serbia is moving firmly and unambiguously toward full membership” in the EU, said Vučić.

European Movement in Serbia critical

The European Movement in Serbia said that the Commission’s Progress Report for Serbia did not bring much that was truly new, i.e. that there was no progress in the same fields as last year.

The organisation stated that where there had been progress, it had been limited by the necessary implementation of the legal solutions and strategies enacted.

“Recommendations such as the reduction of political influence on the judiciary, depoliticisation and professionalisation of public administration, improvement of the government’s cooperation with independent bodies, greater involvement of civil society, advancement of the legislative process and the adoption of the necessary amendments to the Constitution are repeated,” reads a statement from the European Movement in Serbia.

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The statement also reads that the most worrisome is the remark that there has been no progress in creating conditions for the full freedom of media and expression relative to last year, and that the rate of harmonisation with EU declarations and the Council’s conclusions in foreign policy is now at around 59%, while over the course of last year it was 65%.

“The European Movement in Serbia calls on the Serbian government to intensify the preparation and implementation of reforms, especially in the rule of law, and on the EU, for its part, to maintain the dynamic of the negotiating process,” reads the statement.

Expecting the opening of new chapters

Serbia has so far opened four chapters in the EU membership talks, which will determine further progress in the talks. They are Chapter 23 – judiciary and fundamental rights, 24 – justice, freedom and security and Chapter 35 on relations with Kosovo. Serbia has also opened Chapter 32 on financial control.

Vučić and Davenport said on Wednesday that they hoped more negotiating chapters would be opened soon in the EU membership talks.

“We are optimistic as to the potential opening of new chapters by the end of the year. We hope to catch that acceleration and dynamic,” Davenport said at the press conference.

He recalled that the European Commission had already recommended the opening of Chapter 5 on public procurement and that the matter was now being discussed by the EU member states.

Davenport added that the European Commission had invited the Serbian government to submit the negotiation positions for 15 more chapters, while Serbia hopes that beside Chapter 5 it might also by the end of the year open and temporarily close Chapter 25 on science and research and Chapter 26 on education and culture.

The opening of these chapters by the end of the year will primarily depend on Serbia’s progress in implementing the agreements it has reached with Pristina, and a report by the European External Action Service on the subject is expected by the end of the year.

The same as in previous years, Serbian officials did not touch on the Commission’s Progress Report for Kosovo, the independence of which Serbia refuses to recognise.

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Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, however, had some objections, claiming that due to a lack of unity within the EU the European Commission did not treat Kosovo the same as other countries.

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