The EU's Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle commended the Western Balkan country's efforts during a meeting with President Tomislav Nikolic in Belgrade and the EU’s top enlargement official has praised Serbia's progress towards accession into the EU.
"A few days ago we marked the tenth anniversary of the biggest enlargement of the EU. Back in 2004, European integration of Serbia seemed like the distant future and today it is an apparent certainty. I am convinced that Serbia has the ability to turn that possibility into reality", Füle commented.
“This is a crucial period for EU-Serbia relations and an important chapter in the modern history of Serbia is being written – a very European chapter. Serbia has made impressive progress on its path towards EU integration.” Füle added.
In the meeting Füle stressed what the EU considers three key priorities for Serbia in the coming months.
First: Economic governance and reform,
Second: The rule of law, including the fight against corruption and reform of the public administration,
Third: Further commitment to the normalisation of relations with Pristina as well as to regional cooperation and reconciliation.
Moreover, Füle reiterated that the EU is fully committed to helping Serbia with the necessary reforms. He stated that the EU will step up its support to Serbia in the new phase: with technical expertise to ease Serbia’s alignment with EU legislation, as well as with targeted financial support adjusted to Serbia’s needs and in particular to the needs of Serbian citizens.
The EU’s carrot and stick policy: The Kosovo issue
As Füle stated, the Kosovo issue is the most important factor in Serbia’s potential EU membership. Serbia started accession talks with the EU just after signing an agreement with Kosovo as a part of “Brussels Talks” that were held under the auspices of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton.
The EU’s conditionality criteria functions properly in Serbian case. The EU membership process is not a process in which the final result is known from the beginning. The membership process is directly related to the candidate countries’ efforts along EU lines. In this vein, after the “Brussels Talks”, the EU has decided to start accession talks with Serbia to further progress along the EU path. In the end, full membership status of Serbia depends on persistent pursuit of reforms in domestic politics and intensification of the normalization process with Kosovo.
Additionally, as a final note on the Kosovo issue, Serbia still claims its rights over Kosovo with Belgrade considering Kosovo as a part of Serbia. However, many experts believe that Serbia will normalize relations with Kosovo just short of full recognition in exchange for EU membership. Serbia accepts the existence of an authority in Kosovo but Kosovo will remain a quasi-state for Belgrade, much like South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Serbia officially began EU accession talks in late January, a process which is expected to take some 5-6 years. However, Serbia’s accession talks are predicted to take at least 8-9 years due to the necessity of fundamental reforms that would convert Serbia’s state structure and public sector from those of a post-socialist state to those of a European state.
Serbia’s new government will keep true to the EU path
Following the snap elections in March, the Progressives, Socialists and Hungarian minority party formed a new coalition government after very long discussions. In the new government, Ivica Dacic, Serbia's former Prime Minister and Interior Minister, and leader of the Socialist Party, became Serbia's new Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.
At this post, he would be able to continue Serbia-Kosovo talks and implement the 2013 Brussels agreement on normalisation of relations between the two countries. This post is an obvious indication that Serbia desires to continue along on the EU path with a powerful name like Dacic, who happens to be the second most important name in the government and former Prime Minister.
The new Prime Minister Alexander Vucic, former ultra-nationalist and Milosevic-era minister who converted to the pro-EU cause in 2008, said that entry into the EU would be the government's priority upon his first day in office. He also added that while the European Union may not be an ideal community it is the best community Serbia could join and hopes that Serbia will become a member by the end of the decade.
This statement by Serbia’s new Prime Minister shows that the EU is seen as the most important driving force -in a very pragmatic sense- for the development of Serbia’s democracy, economy and good neighbourly relations in the Balkan region. This sentiment is also shared by most Serbians seeing that Vucic’s Progressive Party won %49 of the total votes in the snap elections.
More efforts is vital in Serbia’s European future
Despite the existence of strong opposition in the country, Serbia has enacted important reforms in domestic politics and taken vital steps in regards to the Kosovo issue in return for the commencement of EU accession talks. However, in terms of the EU’s conditionality criteria, Belgrade has to continue reforms and step up normalization efforts with Kosovo in order for the opening of new chapters and ultimately, the final reward of full membership.
The EU has always reiterated that Serbia has been on the right path and the EU stands ready to help. The newly elected government has an excellent opportunity to continue towards the EU with strong public support. After the Milosevic era, for the first time in Serbia, a political party received the majority of the vote forming a new coalition government that represents 60-65% of the Serbian public.
With the will of Serbia’s political elite, the EU’s policies toward the Western Balkans, and the strong public support of the government helping push Serbia along the path to EU accession, and Belgrade could be the second full EU member from the region after Zagreb. Nonetheless, difficult steps of vital importance for the country’s future still require a closer look at governance, rule of law, and the Kosovo issue.