EU candidate Serbia is carefully watching this week’s European Parliament election as its result may impact Belgrade’s progress towards EU membership. Though Brussels is not expected to abandon enlargement, the process is almost certain to slow down, at least this year.
The biggest Western Balkan country is particularly keen to see who will replace Federica Mogherini, who mediates the Belgrade – Priština dialogue, as the new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, and whether the EU’s new diplomacy chief could give a new impetus to the stalled normalisation talks with Kosovo.
Belgrade is also interested in whether the EU executive will have a Commissioner solely for enlargement or if that policy will be merged with another department – with either option a signal about the future priority status of the process.
According to Sena Marić, a senior Researcher of the European Policy Center – CEP Belgrade, a good result of the extreme and populist options could affect institutional solutions, and lead to the situation where a separate enlargement directorate would not be designated within the new European Commission.
“That outcome would send a political message that enlargement is not an important topic for the next make-up of EU institutions and would thus produce negative consequences for Serbia’s further European integration,” Marić told EURACTIV Serbia.
Although surveys suggest a rise of the far right in the EU, Belgrade officials believe that traditional parties will continue to dominate the European Parliament and will thereby continue to have a crucial impact on the appointment of new Commissioners.
There is also the matter of the future senior officials’ political orientation and personal take on enlargement, which should be known in the autumn.
The effect of the EP election on Serbia and the Western Balkans is already visible in the delay of publication of the annual progress report, from April to late May, after the election.
“The EU election has pushed the enlargement policy to the sidelines, it is either not talked about at all or is being put on hold until the EU has reformed itself from within… The dynamic of the accession process of Serbia and the other candidates will be slower this year,” said European Movement in Serbia (EMinS) Secretary General Suzana Grubješić.
The fact that the EU vote has a short-term effect on the entire enlargement process was also pointed out by Ambassador Duško Lopandić, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Along with the delay of the progress report, he highlighted “the attitude of some EU member countries’ leaders toward ‘removing’ the enlargement topic from the official debate of certain EU institutions, including the European Council debate on the EU strategy until 2024.”
Sena Marić pointed out that the start of the next EP’s term will be marked by a vote on the EU’s long-term budget for 2021-2027, which includes the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA III) that Serbia uses.
“In that regard, European MPs may be influential in finalising that arrangement, in the ways of using this fund and its content, as well as the final financial amount,” Marić said.
As for the expected strengthening of right-wing populists, Ambassador Lopandić believes this could affect “to some extent” the EP’s agenda and, indirectly, the enlargement process, but not essentially, as accession is managed primarily by the Commission and the member states and not the Parliament.
In the long term, the EU is not expected to abandon the enlargement policy.
“In the long term, I expect enlargement to remain an important topic in the coming years and the process itself, relative to the Western Balkans, to get new impetus because that fits the logic of the EU’s long-term need to maintain its importance and influence over European and broader events,” said Lopandić.
What is certain is that Serbia will not take part in the next EP election, due in 2024. The EU Strategy for the Western Balkans, adopted just over a year ago, mentions 2025 as a possible year of Serbia and Montenegro’s EU accession, provided that they meet all the membership requisites by that time.
Given the pace of the membership talks so far and the impasse in the normalisation of relations with Kosovo, at this time, 2025 does not seem like a very realistic year of accession for Serbia.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]