In the new annual report of the European Commission Serbia’s progress in chapters 23 and 24 is evaluated as limited. Even in the areas where reform activities have accelerated in 2021, results are yet to be seen. The Report warns of political polarization, government intolerance of criticism, political influence on judiciary and media; while final results in the fight against high-level corruption and organized crime are weaker compared to previous years.
The European Commission published Annual Report for Serbia on October 19th. The report covers time period from June 2020 to June 2021, but also refers to further developments until mid-October. This is the first report based on the new enlargement methodology which groups chapters into clusters.
The best report’ with limited progress in key areas
Prime Minister Ana Brnabić evaluated that this report is ‘far better’ compared to previous years. Commissioner for Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi highlighted positive evaluation of reform efforts of Serbia during his presentation of the enlargement package in the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. On this occasion he recommended that Serbia should open remaining chapters in clusters 3 (Competitiveness and Inclusive Growth) and 4 (Green Agenda and Sustainable Connectivity). The Commission finds that the general balance is achieved between progress in the area of Rule of Law and normalization of relations with Kosovo, on the one hand, the progress in technical aspects of other chapters, on the other.
In its communication European Commission wants to emphasize positive aspects of reform activities of Serbia’s Government in the context of unconvincing messages from the recent EU-Western Balkans Summit in Brdo pri Kranju and stagnation in the enlargement policy which reflects negatively on the whole region. Serbia hasn’t opened new chapters since the end of 2019. and the EU accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia still haven’t started.
However, detailed reading of the report indicates the same problems in critical areas in Cluster 1 (Fundamentals), which are still poorly evaluated with ‘some level of preparation’ and ‘limited progress’ in the reporting period. This is equivalent to grade 2 out of 5. Average grade for all chapters is somewhat better, approximately 3 out of 5. The most critical areas remain: independence of judiciary, fight against corruption, freedom of media, domestic handling of war crimes and fight against organized crime. Serious problems also hamper the reform of public administration.
According to prEUgovor’s findings in the last Alarm Report, the new government put into motion numerous activities in 2021 in order to compensate for the lost previous year. But, neither there are results, nor there is any political will for implementation of essential reforms beyond ‘ticking-the-box’ in order to get the green light from Brussels.
European Commission’s Report confirms series of problems which were pointed out by the coalition prEUgovor, it refers to initiated processes but fails to see any tangible results yet. In spite of citing negative facts, it avoids harsh criticism. Furthermore, the Report relies on new deadlines from revised Action Plans for Chapters 23 and 24 from 2020. That’s the reason why there is no criticism about ‘serious delays’ in the implementation of the measures, which was often previously.
Political Criteria - growing polarization and attacks on Government critics
As for democracy, the Report warns of climate of growing political polarization, overwhelming domination of the ruling coalition, absence of opposition from Parliament and important social processes, as well as of inflammatory rhetoric against regime critics in media and parliamentary debates. Not only opposition politicians, but also investigative journalists, prominent individuals with a critical attitude, civil society organizations, and even members of the European Parliament were targeted. The adoption of the Code of Conduct has not diminished this bad practice. The reduction of urgent legislative procedures and the organization of public hearings are positive developments, while the Parliament's relationship with independent institutions needs to be significantly improved.
In respect of election rules, it is highlighted that Serbia has just started working on the implementation of the recommendations of ODIHR. So, they must be ‘implemented in an inclusive and transparent manner, based on wider political consensus and well ahead of the next elections’ in 2022. The recently formed Temporary Supervisory Body for Media Monitoring during Election Campaign, as a result of inter-party dialogue mediated by a group of MEPs, is mentioned, but there was no time to consider problems in respect of its formation. Namely, the Government has no authorization to form a body which will be tasked to deal with affairs that fall under jurisdiction of other institutions. prEUgovor reminds that the Law on Financing of Political Activities is being changed in secret, while the report only states that this Law should be changed.
The authorities’ relations with the civil society were badly evaluated, despite of the efforts of the newly formed Ministry of Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue, from unsatisfactory inclusion in the process of drafting regulations, through abusing anti-terrorism regulations in order to intimidate critical organizations, to verbal attacks.
In the area of public administration reform, objections are visible due to budgetary non-transparency, large discretionary powers of heads of institutions in human resources management, frequent administrative silence and violation of the principles of good administration (as seen in the practice of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and the Ombudsman). Serious concerns and a call for urgent action, as the sharpest assessment in the vocabulary of the European Commission, are caused by the continuation (even retroactive) of the appointment of public servants in the acting position. Moreover, compared to 2020, the percentage of civil servants in senior positions in public administration has risen to 62%, which undermines the integrity of institutions.
Chapter 23 - slightly better assessed due to unblocked process of Constitutional changes
Pressures and attacks on judges and prosecutors continue, as well as unacceptable commentaries on court proceedings by top public officials. Positive progress has been made when it comes to the process of drafting constitutional amendments in the field of judiciary, with the aim of removing the present political influence on this branch of government. However, the fact that all previously given recommendations are still valid and have yet to be fulfilled proves that there are no achieved results. The report also states that the Venice Commission gave a favorable opinion on the draft constitutional amendments on October 15, and that a referendum on amendments to the Constitution is planned for December 2021. However, prEUgovor reminds that recommendations from this Opinion and also from the opinion about the Draft on the Law on Referendum and People’s Initiative, which was omitted in the Report, are still expected to be implemented and that amending regulations immediately before a referendum or election campaign is not good practice.
There is a lack of results in the fight against high-level corruption, as the anti-corruption strategy still hasn’t been adopted. There is no strong political will to use all the powers of the Anti-Corruption Agency, and serious concern has been expressed about ignoring the Anti-Corruption Council, which is an advisory body to the Government. The Krušik affair is cited as an example of a problem in the whistleblowing system. The report also mentions the adoption of an authentic interpretation of the term "public official", which narrows the circle of persons obliged by the new Law on Prevention of Corruption, but without any evaluation of this act. The Anti-Corruption Law is changed in an urgent procedure in September in order to complete the GRECO recommendations until the deadline in October. The circumvention of the Law on Public Procurement is still evident through public-private partnerships and exemptions for projects of strategic importance.
In the section on Fundamental Rights, the report reflects the situation faithfully - limited progress is achieved. Even when legal framework exists in the areas such as anti-discrimination, gender equality, protection of women from violence and the rights of the child, it should be further harmonized with the EU standards, and its implementation is inconsistent. The adoption of the numerous strategic documents is being postponed and it’s indispensable to provide adequate financial resources for their implementation and also improve the data-collection process (especially about multiple discriminated groups). Regarding women, there is an adverse impact of cross-discrimination, whose deterioration is noticed due to COVID-19 crisis. This especially refers to Roma women, poor and disabled, refugees and internally-displaced women. When children are at stake, in the most difficult position are also Roma and disabled children, particularly those who are institutionalized. Hate speech, threats and violation are still directed to human rights defenders, LGBTQ and migrants.
The process of introducing biometric surveillance in the capital is reflected in the Report, while relying on (negative) opinion of the Commissioner for Personal Data Protection. Limited progress remains in the area of Freedom of Speech and Media, where not only growing trend of attacks and pressures on journalists is noticed, but also institutions unwilling to cooperate and worrying political and economic influence on the media.
Unconvincing results in Chapter 24
In the reporting period the Republic of Serbia is praised, as transit country, for its contribution to the management of mixed migratory flows towards EU, and also for implementation of IBM strategy and action plan. Nevertheless, the report doesn’t give general assessment of individual subsections in the area of Migrations and Asylum, nor it provides qualitative review of effects of implemented activities and achieved changes which are emphasized in these areas.
In the area of Police Reform, the key precondition for chapter 24, firstly proposed (August 2021), and then rapidly withdrawn Draft Law on Internal Affairs isn’t mentioned in this report. However, the same recommendations remain also in this area - the need for a new law, which should, inter alia, remove political influence on operative work of the police, improve cooperation between prosecution and police and finally, advance the work of the Sector of Internal Control in the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
In the area of Fight against Organized Crime the Commission states limited progress and repeats recommendations from previous years. This means that the ‘war against mafia’, mostly waged through tabloid media last year, didn’t impress Brussels evaluators who are still insisting on the same things. Serbia must increase the number of final verdicts, improve investigations and finally, shift to a strategic approach of fighting large organized crime groups with international influence and significant assets, instead of the current case-focused approach.
As for Suppression of Human Trafficking, the report cites that in Serbia the most present form of human trafficking is sexual exploitation. The same goes for work exploitation. In this regard, the revolutionary Decision of the Constitutional Court (March 2021) and its explanation are of great importance. The report emphasizes that verdicts for trafficking in form of organized crime are still missing, the status of especially sensitive witness is rarely given and victims are not awarded adequate compensation, although there is legal framework to do so. The Centre for the Protection of the Human Trafficking Victims is operational, but its Shelter is closed, so the accommodation of the victims stays one of the major problems. Moreover, the adoption of the Action Plan for period 2021-2022 is delayed.
The recommendations of the prEUgovor that new National Strategy for Preventing and Fighting Terrorism should encompass all forms of radicalization and violent extremism (regardless of its political, religious or ethno-national causes) have been confirmed. There is no functional oversight of strategy’s implementation. There are no field activities for the prevention of political and ethno-national extremism and violation in sports, nor have the relations between right extremism and fan-groups been investigated.
The report refers several times to ‘The List’ case from July 2020, citing international expert bodies that concluded that Serbian Anti-Money Laundering Administration abused its competences in order to intimidate Government critics and put pressure on civil society. According to prEUgovor coalition, the recommendation of the European Commission in this respect is too mild and boils down to the fact that the Administration (as well as other law enforcement bodies) should improve their communication skills towards media and public.
prEUgovor reminds that European Commission’s semi-annual ‘non-paper’ about the state of affairs in Chapters 23 and 24 from May 2021 has not been published on the website of the Ministry of the European Integrations, unlike earlier good practice.
The forthcoming prEUgovor Alarm Report on Serbia’s progress in Cluster 1 will be published in November 2021.
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).