Serbia is moving more and more slowly towards membership in the European Union and has been standing halfway for years, concludes the new annual report of the European Commission. The greatest attention was caused by the unprecedented backsliding due to Serbia's non-alignment with the European Union's foreign policy in the context of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The Government of Serbia itself emphasized this assessment, in an effort to divert attention from the slow and unconvincing reforms in the area of the rule of law. In the key areas of accession negotiations monitored by the prEUgovor coalition, assessments and recommendations are largely repeated, but now with additional emphasis.
Unchanged level of preparation for membership, the most modest progress so far
Since 2015, when the European Commission started quantifying its assessments, the overall level of preparation for membership of Serbia has increased only slightly, and since 2020 it has been standing still - halfway. In Chapters 23 and 24, which cover the judiciary and fundamental rights, the fight against corruption and organized crime, Serbia has only reached a certain level of preparation for membership. That's a score of 2 out of 5. It is discouraging that North Macedonia and Albania, which have just opened accession negotiations, have a higher level of preparedness in these areas. When it comes to the average progress achieved in 2022, Serbia achieved by far its most modest result, and in the region only Bosnia and Herzegovina is progressing more slowly.
In addition to the findings in specific areas, the European Commission is particularly looking at something that should otherwise be unquestionable - the demonstration of Serbia's strategic determination towards European integration. However, it is increasingly being questioned. This is clear from the statements of certain Serbian officials and messages during the election campaign. Moreover, the unsatisfactory pace of reforms, the results that are not yet visible in key areas, the lack of political will accompanied by insufficient and volatile staff, all of this is a far more important indicator and basis for what is now most clearly seen in Serbia's foreign policy - acting contrary to the goal of accession to the European Union.
Although Chapter 31 should not affect the dynamics of accession negotiations - only Chapters 23, 24 and 35 (Other - normalization of relations with Pristina) have such weight - in this geopolitical situation it is interpreted as crucial for expressing the country's strategic determination. It cannot be expected that the EU Member States, which make the final decision on the opening of new clusters, will do Serbia a favour, which cannot boast of good results in other areas either.
Weak institutions, strong political and media polarization
The functioning of democratic institutions, strong political will and public administration reform are key prerequisites for further reform steps. Given that Serbia, despite the clear victory of the ruling party in the elections in April, still does not have a government, the momentum of reforms could not even be expected.
Great attention in the report of the European Commission is devoted to the work of the National Assembly. The return of the opposition to the parliamentary benches is particularly underlined as an opportunity to unreservedly improve the efficiency, independence, and transparency of the parliament in order to ensure the mechanism of checks and balances. There is still a high level of polarization in political life and in the media, with a pronounced dominance of the ruling party and the President of the Republic (and of the party), while critics of the government are exposed to smear campaigns.
The weaknesses of independent institutions are also pointed out - there is not enough trust in the independence of the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption and the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM). The practice of several months' delay in the election of heads of independent institutions is repeated. This time it is the case of the Ombudsman, whose mandate expired in July, and the election process has not even started yet.
The European Commission also points to the excessive number of acting positions in the state administration, a problem which the Government of Serbia is persistently deepening even though it has committed itself by law to eradicate it. Coalition prEUgovor recently analysed the latest data in this area and found a number of illegalities. Although the issue of public companies does not belong to the area where there are unified European rules, it is commendable that this year's report found a place for them as well.
The multifaceted role of civil society in the process of European integration
The report recognizes the role of civil society in the process of integration. The European Commission adopts some of the evaluations and recommendations of the prEUgovor coalition and other organizations, criticizes smear campaigns against individuals and critical organizations, calls for greater participation of civil society in the process of drafting bills, and praises the efforts of organizations stepped up to provide support and assistance services for citizens instead of the state.
In the domain of good neighbourly relations and regional policy of Serbia, the report is similar to the previous ones in the sense that the overall assessment is positive, but that there are some "buts" behind it. Now, the relations with Croatia are highlighted as negative, whose officials had sharp verbal conflicts on several topics. The report also points out the slow progress of the dialogue with Kosovo, in which a greater contribution from the highest political level as well as the full implementation of previously reached agreements is being asked for. The report also highlighted the expectation of true commitment to investigations and judicial processes of war crimes, where more effective regional cooperation is particularly insisted upon.
With regard to constitutional changes in the field of justice, the main findings of the Venice Commission are conveyed, and further work is monitored on the development of a set of judicial laws, without the adoption and consistent application of which there will be no final results - strengthening the independence of this branch of government. However, the European Commission does not address the criticisms of the Venice Commission on the drafting of the Law on Referendum and People's Initiative immediately before the referendum, which is not in accordance with European standards.
Freedom of expression and the media was rated the worst in this chapter - without any progress. The report very clearly links the problems in this area with the weaknesses of the electoral process. The apparent dominance of the ruling party and its president in the media created unequal conditions for the participants of the elections, “limiting the opportunity for voters to make a fully informed decision”. The importance of the media was increased by the need to fight against disinformation in the context of the war in Ukraine and Russian influence in Serbia.
Certain progress was noted in the fight against corruption, recommendations remain the same
The progress achieved in the fight against corruption is one level higher than last year. The reason for this is GRECO's conclusion from March 2022 that the amendments to the Law on the Prevention of Corruption removed the shortcomings and sufficiently strengthened the legal framework when it comes to preventing and suppressing conflicts of interest among parliamentarians, judges and public prosecutors. Another assessment on the positive side is “a slight increase in the number of first-instance verdicts for high-level corruption”. How much ‘progress’ we are talking about is best seen by the fact that the main recommendations are almost identical to last year's, while the level of preparedness for membership in this area has not increased.
When all the final convictions for corruption are added up according to this report of the European Commission, there were 406 of them, which is small in relation to the actual prevalence of corruption in the country. Serbia is the only jurisdiction in the region that has not accepted external observers of trials for corruption and organized crime within the framework of the OSCE program, and the reasons for this have not been publicly announced. An important point in this year's report is that the European Commission warns prosecutors and courts that greater transparency of their work is needed, especially when it comes to decisions to dismiss criminal charges and long-term investigations of corruption cases.
It is emphasized that Serbia should investigate allegations of high-level corruption and protect whistleblowers, as well as that the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption should proactively apply its powers in order to “strengthen trust in institutions”. “It remains of serious concern that the
authorities still have not established a more constructive relationship” with the Anti-Corruption Council.
Amendments to the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance of November 2021 are said to have brought “further alignment with some of the international standards” in that area. However, the report does not say that some of the standards from the Constitution of Serbia are not met, so the scope of legal protection is narrowed when it comes to information held by the National Bank of Serbia, and in some other cases as well.
An entire paragraph in the section on corruption is devoted to public procurement, in addition to an entire chapter of the Report that deals with this area and in which it is unequivocally assessed that there is no progress. A large number of exceptions to the application of the Law on Public Procurement “seriously increases the risk of corruption in public procurement”, according to the assessment of the European Commission. Procurements from interstate agreements are also criticized. And this year, it is reminded that the publication of all information on procurement related to COVID would improve transparency and increase trust, although what is obvious is missing - that there is no legal basis for treating these procurements as confidential.
Confirmed evaluations of the prEUgovor coalition in the area of fundamental rights
The report of the European Commission largely agrees with the assessment of the situation in the Alarm reports. It is stated that strategic documents in the field of non-discrimination, gender equality, protection of women from violence, protection of sexual and reproductive rights and health, protection of children from violence either do not have adopted action plans, or their adoption is seriously delayed, or do not have appropriate financial resources allocated for implementation activities, or the implementation of plans and achieved effects are not monitored. And a whole series of laws in these areas have been waiting for amendments for several years, especially when it comes to the protection of children.
The statement is repeated that the criminal offense of rape has not been harmonized with the Istanbul Convention, as well as that there are no statistical data for a whole range of areas, especially when it comes to members of discriminated and marginalized social groups. Early marriages, violence and discrimination against Roma women remain problems. There is a small number of specialized services for women and children who were victims of violence, persons with disabilities and mental health problems. They are underfunded when they are provided by specialized civil society organizations. The treatment of persons placed in institutions (children, the elderly and persons with disabilities, mental problems) is inadequate and the procedures that protect the rights of persons deprived of business capacity are insufficiently regulated.
The necessity of implementing the recommendations of international bodies, such as the GREVIO expert group against violence against women and the Committee for the Rights of the Child, is also emphasized. It is stated that hate speech, threats and violence are still directed at human rights defenders and the LGBTIQ community. The prohibition, i.e. the legal and political uncertainty of holding Europride 2022, as well as the contradictory communication of authorities at the highest level about that event, is particularly emphasized. This area has not been legally improved, support services are inadequate, as well as the implementation of protection against hate crimes.
When it comes to procedural rights, the Report states that the legal framework is only partially harmonized with the EU. The action plan on the rights of victims and witnesses of crimes is being implemented slowly, with insufficient resources and personnel to establish a network of support services, and inadequate procedural protection for victims. Regarding access to justice, it is stated that it is necessary to raise awareness of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups, to ensure access to women in relation to all forms of gender-based violence and discrimination, in accordance with the recommendation of the CEDAW Committee, to improve the capacity and cooperation between different providers, as well as to harmonize the legal framework in this area.
Praises in the area of managing migrations, criticism for inconsistent visa policy
The report doesn’t grade individual subchapters in the area of migration and asylum generally, nor does it give a qualitative review on the effects of the implemented activities and accomplished changes that are highlighted in these areas. One of the key recommendations of the European Commission remains aligning national visa policy with EU visa policy, and it’s due to the fact that EU countries note a higher influx of citizens from migration risk countries with which Serbia has a visa-free policy.
The report commends Serbia, as a transit country, for undertaking significant steps in managing the migration streams leading towards EU countries. It also states that many of the segments in the system of managing migrations in Serbia are still completely dependent on EU support. In addition, for the first time the report states that people who are currently in the extradition process should get effective access to an asylum as to avoid potential cases of refoulement. However, an important fact that is being overlooked is that effective protection mechanisms of non-refoulement imply a wider range of obligations for competent authorities then just securing access to the asylum process. The report doesn’t indicate the need for resolving the legal status of the majority of people whose presence was noted on Serbian territory.
The state in the area of the fight against organized crime equally unsatisfactory
A part of the report regarding the police reform and the fight against organized crime, within Chapter 24, gives a clear picture of a state that has been unsatisfactory for years. The Commission drew attention to an attempt to pass the Internal Affairs Law during 2021 without adequate public debate; the Law was withdrawn after a harsh reaction from civil society organizations. Because of this, Serbia has received an explicit recommendation that changes must be made in regard to the Law on Police to reach a goal of strengthening police autonomy from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, better cooperation with the Prosecutor’s Office and more direct communication with the citizens, unmediated by the Ministry.
Serbia is still missing tangible results in the area of processing cases of serious and organized crime. The Commission rightfully doesn’t engage with the so-called war against the mafia which the Serbian government has been leading for two years without success, but it did indicate the need for implementing a strategic approach that would focus on dismantling large organized crime groups instead of using the ad-hoc approach on case by case bases. Serbia is still not using special investigating methods enough, nor does it use proactive investigating in the fight against organized crime, also there is a clear need for confiscating more properties originating from crimes.
The report gives adequate space for one of the largest challenges in the fight against human trafficking in Serbia in 2021, which is the case of potential human trafficking for the purpose of worker exploitation in the Linglong tire factory. Noted in the report were reactions from international bodies (ECOSOC, UN group of experts for fighting human trafficking), as well as activities of the civil society organizations that were drawing attention of the competent authorities and the public to this case. It is also noted that “The Centre (for the protection of victims of human trafficking) has said that the procedure of identification of potential victims is ongoing”, even if that statement is contradictory with all the publicly available documents of the Centre.
Also, the report states once again that the Key coordinating body, Council for Combating Human Trafficking, didn’t meet for more than three years, that the Action plan for the last two years of implementing was delayed for more than a year (the information that it was never officially adopted is missing), as well as that the procedures for felony in the form of organized crime are still missing.
Coalition prEUgovor is a network of civil society organisations formed in order to monitor the implementation of policies relating to the accession negotiations between Serbia and the EU, with an emphasis on Chapters 23 and 24 of the Acquis. In doing so, the coalition aims to use the EU integration process to help accomplish substantial progress in the further democratisation of the Serbian society.
Members of the coalition are: ASTRA - Anti-Trafficking Action, Autonomous Women's Centre (AWC), Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP), Centre for Investigative Journalism in Serbia (CINS), Centre for Applied European Studies (CPES), Group 484 and Transparency Serbia (TS).