Serbia expects little from enlargement reform but hopes for more quality, speed

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) listens during the press conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade on 15 July 2019. [EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC]

EU countries should soon reach a consensus on new enlargement methodology. Details remain unknown and it is not clear if the reform will also apply to Montenegro and Serbia, which are further along the accession path than the Western Balkans’ other EU hopefuls.

Expectations about changes to European enlargement policy are not too high while Serbia, judging by statements from the Belgrade authorities, will remain on the European path either way.

After North Macedonia and Albania were blocked from opening membership talks last autumn, despite having met the requirements, French President Emmanuel Macron, who was largely behind the veto in the EU Council, called for reforming the enlargement process.

Serbia has opened 18 negotiating chapters and temporarily closed two, whereas Montenegro has opened nearly all the chapters but has made little progress in closing them.

Serbia’s Minister of European Integration, Jadranka Joksimović, says Belgrade is deep in the negotiating process and has “a clear negotiating framework for accession talks with the EU” – it is therefore unlikely that any change of rules would affect Serbia, “whatever change to the methodology is agreed among the member states.”

“Of course, we are following the debate, giving a constructive contribution by presenting the way in which we negotiate, but we also expect that any change to the methodology should move in the direction of increasing the quality and speed of the accession process, rather than vice versa,” the minister told EURACTIV Serbia.

At the same time, Suzana Grubješić of the Center for Foreign Policy believes that the French proposal for reforming the enlargement policy is going in the right direction.

In her words, a horizontal integration in phases, as well as access to EU structural funds prior to formal membership, might soften the negative sentiment about enlargement in many EU countries, and could also enable the candidates to participate more actively in European policies.

Grubješić recalling that there was another proposal from nine member states, which, among other things, asks the Commission to group negotiating chapters by the main fields and open chapters in parallel.

Conflicting positions and messages

Aleksandra Tomanić, executive director of the European Fund for the Balkans (EFB), said there are currently so many conflicting positions on enlargement in the Council that the new approach will struggle to reconcile them all. Consequently, she said, we should not expect any revolutionary changes.

“What we’ve heard at various meetings in Brussels is that we shouldn’t expect too much, that we should lower our expectations because the new methodology and the new strategy that will accompany it will have a minimal consensus,” said the EFB executive director.

Duško Lopandić, an ambassador with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that “the new French and other initiatives regarding the methodology of enlargement negotiations should not slow down but rather facilitate, simplify and accelerate the EU enlargement process in the medium term”.

EU experts in Serbia also pointed out some contradicting messages.

“While France says the new methodology should apply to all the countries in the process, therefore to Serbia and Montenegro as well, (European Commissioner for Enlargement Oliver) Varhelyi said the other day that there would be no change to the methodology for the countries already negotiating,” said Tomanić.

There could be more clarity after a visit by the new EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, to Belgrade and Priština in the coming weeks, although the main topic on the agenda will certainly be the resumption of the Belgrade-Priština talks.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, which Serbia, along with five EU member countries, refuses to recognise. A normalisation of relations is a key precondition for both countries to advance their EU bids.

The EU-mediated dialogue between Belgrade and Priština broke down more than a year ago. Kosovo held a general election last fall and still has no government, while Serbia will have a general election most likely at the end of April, so a resumption of the talks should not be expected any time soon.

Elections matter

Moreover, the Serbian opposition denounces the authoritarian ways of Vučić’s regime and his pro-Russian bias. Although his force is expected to win the elections, his position is likely to be less comfortable vis-à-vis Brussels. Internal in-fighting in Serbia will most likely play in the hands of those who don’t want to envisage any new EU enlargement in the middle term.

In France, Presidential elections will be held in April-May 2022. If Macron is re-elected, the chances for speeding up the enlargement dossiers of Montenegro but also Serbia would definitely be greater, especially if both countries would in the meantime appease their internal in-fighting.

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Minister Joksimović said an EU-Western Balkans summit, to be held in Zagreb in May, under the auspices of Croatia’s EU presidency, should see certain decisions formalised, primarily about the methodology of the talks for those countries still waiting to open them, but also about the overall future of enlargement.

According to European Policy Center researcher Strahinja Subotić, the most important result of the summit could be an invitation to the Western Balkan countries to take part in the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe.

This would be incredibly important as it would signal that the EU is sincerely committed to integrating the Western Balkans but also allow the countries from the region to have a say in shaping Europe’s future, said the researcher.

Serbia will not rush to join the EU until it is truly ready

As Serbia heads into an election year, the rhetoric of political parties rise. In an exclusive op-ed for, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić says a fair election requires all parties to participate and present their vision in order to give people a real choice.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Georgi Gotev]

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