The European Commission's (EC) Report on Serbia was published on November 8 as part of the broader European Union enlargement package, which now includes a total of ten countries. The prEUgovor coalition highlights and comments on its key findings in the areas it regularly monitors.
The Report shows that, over the past nine years, Serbia has only slightly increased its readiness for EU membership and consistently stagnates half-way on the reform path. In critical areas covered by chapters 23 and 24 (judiciary, fight against corruption, freedom of expression, fight against organised crime), it received a rating of 2 out of 5, which is the same as in the previous year.
On a positive note, this year’s Report contains more thorough explanations for the given assessments and cites numerous examples that illustrate systematic issues in these areas, which is unusual, keeping in mind the European Commission’s previous practice. With that being said, this somewhat addresses the critiques that were made up until now, deeming the language of the previous reports as having “constructive ambiguity”. However, prEUgovor finds that, in certain segments, EC’s assessments are either lenient or premature, usually regarding recent events that have been included in the Report, even though the reporting period ends in June 2023. Such is the case, for example, with important laws that were adopted at the end of October, before the dissolution of the National Assembly, whose shortcomings are to be thoroughly analysed in the forthcoming prEUgovor Alarm report.
In 2023, Serbia failed to regain the previous level of annual progress. In comparison to the previous year, there was slower progress in 11 chapters, and swifter progress in 9 chapters. Within Chapter 23, the progress in the fight against corruption has decreased, and there was, finally, a slight (limited) progress in the area of freedom of expression.
According to the assessment of the EC, the most significant change in progress was seen in the field of public procurement (from 1 to 3), while the overall level of readiness for membership has mildly risen, only regarding chapter 17 (from 3 to 3.5). There was no progress in Chapter 31, where the European Commission noted backsliding last year. The Commission has reiterated its recommendations to open Cluster 3 (Competitiveness and Inclusive Growth), as Serbia has fulfilled the technical prerequisites. Nevertheless, to accomplish that, all members of the EU Council must give their consent, which is unlikely to happen this winter.
The fact that there has been no backsliding in any of the chapters this year (regards to which Serbia made a precedent for the whole region in 2022), seems sufficient enough for the outgoing government of Serbia to be content with the Report. This continues the previous practice of selective interpretation and presentation of the European Commission’s assessments to the domestic audience, followed by accusations that civil society organisations and the opposition obstruct the reforms implemented by the government, with their critiques.
The prEUgovor coalition emphasises that the Report of the European Commission has, on numerous accounts, highlighted the importance of civil society for democracy, the protection of fundamental rights, and the support of vulnerable social groups. Therefore, it points out the unsatisfactory relationship between authorities and public institutions towards these organisations, starting from non-transparent and unfair funding competitions to smear campaigns, pressures, and attacks. The coalition warns that an atmosphere of intolerance towards any criticism does not contribute to a clear understanding of the real scope of reforms in the country and their improvement.
Alongside the enlargement package, the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans has been presented, foreseeing six billion euros in grants and loans for the region during the period 2024-2027. Payments will depend on the implementation of the reform agenda of each individual country.
There can be no true reforms without functional democratic institutions
The European Commission's Report unequivocally points out that the "proper functioning of democratic processes in Serbia is a central pillar of Serbia's accession process to the European Union." In this context, prEUgovor also consistently emphasises that reforms in individual areas must be viewed from the perspective of the (dis)functionality of democratic institutions in the country. Despite the return of the opposition to the parliamentary seats, political polarisation remains prevalent in the public sphere.
The Report finds that, even though the legislative framework for elections has been improved, further reforms in this area are still deemed necessary. Given that seven days before the publication of the Report, snap parliamentary and local elections were announced for December 2023 (which is not included in the Report), it is certain that the upcoming electoral cycle will proceed with the same issues that prEUgovor reported on, in the past.
The European Commission particularly analyses the problems in the National Assembly - scheduling sessions only 24 hours in advance, delays in holding regular sessions, the biased stance of the president in leading debates, selective application of the code of conduct, by neglecting to adopt an annual work agenda the dynamic is controlled by the government, including discussions on topics unrelated to the daily agenda (even on the annual budget), obstructing opposition leaders of parliamentary committees, manipulating transcripts of sessions. On the other hand, although it is mentioned that the investigative committee, established in order to clarify incidents from the beginning of May 2023, held only two sessions, it was neglected to note that it was shut down illegally.
The crucial de-escalation of tensions between Belgrade and Priština
In terms of neighbourly relations and regional politics, the Report of the European Commission gives positive remarks regarding Serbia’s multilateral engagement. The Commission deems Serbia’s bilateral relations with the neighbouring countries as good or very good, relating to the improvement of relations with Croatia, as was noted in the new Alarm report. The EC began to pay special attention to the bilateral relations of Serbia with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, as the mentioned countries have gained either a candidate status (Ukraine, Moldova), or a potential candidate status (Georgia).
This is a result of a new momentum within the enlargement process, in the context of war in Ukraine, representing a different geography of enlargement in which the Balkans are no longer the sole region with the perspective of future membership. Therefore, the topic of Serbia’s stance on the war, and particularly on sanctions towards Russia, is marked negatively overall. This permeates the Report throughout various topics and key conclusions and does not represent a matter that solely touches upon higher foreign politics, but on desirable solidarity among candidates as well, thus becoming a de facto political criterion not firmly related to Chapter 31 and Cluster 6.
The Report extensively addresses the negotiation process between Serbia and Kosovo and the situation on the ground but refrains from providing a clear, explicit assessment. The Commission strives to maintain a balance in criticising both sides for the lack of implementation of the Agreement on the Normalisation Process and its Implementation Annex. The Report makes it clear that the European Union is focused on the ultimate results of implementing these agreements.
As expected, the Commission's report dedicates significant attention to cases of violence escalation, such as the conflict between Serbian demonstrators and the Kosovo police and KFOR units in May, and especially the armed clash near the Banjska Monastery where four people lost their lives. The Commission's political message is that this attack "must not serve as an excuse for either side to divert attention from the EU-facilitated dialogue" (p. 97). It aims to limit the consequences of this clash, to ensure that it does not negatively impact the dynamics of negotiations, while simultaneously and explicitly urging Serbia to fully cooperate in prosecuting those responsible for the incident.
Steps toward de-escalating tensions are what the Commission hopes to see in the immediate future, aligning with the calls of the European Council from October of this year. This is emphasised as the main message regarding the relationship between Belgrade and Priština.
Mild conclusion of the European Commission concerning the improvements in the field of fight against corruption
The assessment of the European Commission regarding Serbia’s “limited improvement” in the field of fight against corruption is excessively benevolent.
On the other hand, EC’s Report is quite meaningful, as it points to some of the most important unresolved issues, including the direct procurement contracting for infrastructure projects, the unlawful acting status in public administration and public enterprises, the legal framework for financing campaigns has not been improved, the absence of cooperation between the government and the Council for the fight against corruption, as well as the fact that there is no information on the confiscation of assets acquired through criminal activities after corruption convictions.
In the field of the fight against corruption, three factors influenced the given positive assessment. The first factor is that something was done regarding the five unfulfilled recommendations from the fourth round of the GRECO evaluation, which were supposed to be fulfilled back in 2016. Indeed, some activities have been undertaken concerning the evaluation of prosecutors' work and the selection of chief prosecutors. On the other hand, there has been no attempt to amend the parliamentary Rules of Procedure, to prevent manipulation regarding the urgent procedure for the consideration of laws. Furthermore, the Minister of Justice still holds a position as a member of the High Council of Public Prosecutors, contrary to GRECO's recommendation.
Moreover, the report notes an increase in the number of finalised convictions in cases handled by the Prosecutor’s Office for Organised Crime (from 19 in 2021 to 21 in 2022), but also a decrease in the number of convictions in cases under the jurisdiction of higher public prosecutors’ offices (212 compared to 255). The Commission acknowledges the drafting of an anti-corruption strategy proposal but states that its quality is still not up to par. The Prime Minister announced the adoption of this document, “in the next two or three months”, but it remains unclear whether a new government will be formed during that period.
When touching upon the subject of public procurement, it was assessed as “moderately improved”, due to the abolishment of the Law on Linear Infrastructure, which was one of the key recommendations. Even though it is noted that the new EXPO 2027 law has been enacted, which will similarly exclude the procurement of highly valuable public works from the public procurement system, the assessment was not downgraded, nor is the abolishment of this law mentioned as one of the recommendations. The problem of contracting procurement based on intergovernmental agreements between Serbia and third countries remains one of the greatest problems highlighted in the Report, as it contradicts EU regulations. Also, the disclosed value of such exempted procurements is low in comparison to the number of projects implemented under such exceptions.
The EC report also diverts attention to the, still, unmet obligations that stem from the Media Strategy, including the unresolved question of public sector advertising in the media. The overall assessment shows that corruption “prevails in many areas and is a cause for concern”. The EC also highlights that there is a need for a “strong political will to effectively address corruption issues, as well as a robust response from the criminal justice system to high-level corruption cases”.
The reiterated assessment of the prEUgovor coalition on the protection of fundamental rights
When discussing fundamental rights, including the politics of non-discrimination, gender equality, and the prevention of violence towards women and children’s rights, the 2023 Report of the European Commission reiterates that the existing legal and strategic framework should be efficiently and thoroughly implemented and that the action plans (AP), as well as the financing for their realisation, are significantly delayed, and this corresponds to findings of the Alarm reports. This is especially prominent in the field of preventing violence against women. It is necessary to highlight that hate speech, threats and violence are geared towards numerous minority rights and human rights defenders, and they originate from, both local local and national, public figures, which was regularly documented in the Alarm reports.
It is of great importance to underscore that there is no improvement in the implementation of the Law on Gender Equality in educational facilities, plans, programmes and textbooks, as the revision of biology textbooks confirms, because of alleged “interpretations that contain ideological elements”. This was also written about in the Alarm report. We believe that greater attention should be drawn to the harmful effects caused by the growing movements against women’s rights and gender equality, especially in the areas of reproductive, sexual rights, and women’s health.
Concerning violence against women, it is necessary to mention that the 2023 EC Report stresses that the implementation of the Law against Domestic Violence should be improved, that the recommendations of the GREVIO expert group of the Council of Europe are still not put into practice, and that the all-encompassing response to all kinds of gender-based violence towards women, as well as the alignment of the terms rape and sexual violence with the Istanbul Convention (for which the Autonomous Women’s Center, within the prEUgovor coalition, put together a series of amendments as early as May 2022).
The EC reports confirm what every Alarm report has concluded, that there is little to no support for victims, and that the given support predominantly comes from women’s organisations with limited budgets and involvement in cross-sector groups. Therefore, there is a need for more transparency and public financing in this area.
When dealing with the subject of children’s rights, the lack of reports about the existing strategic documents is confirmed, as are the delays in adopting sector protocols for the protection of children against violence, as well as the fact that the Law against Domestic Violence does not enable every child that testifies or was subject to abuse into the protection plan.
Special attention should be brought to the use of all-encompassing policies for the protection of children against violence in schools, including programmes for children who commit violent acts towards other children or adults. Furthermore, it would be of great significance if the EC reports were to consistently emphasise the country’s obligation to ensure an array of services as means of support for children, youth and families, as was previously established in the Action plan for Chapter 23, but its realisation has been delayed for years.
The insistence of the EC upon Serbia to adopt a new Law on Juvenile Perpetrators of Criminal Offences and Criminal-Legal Protection of Minors, and the consistent refusal to give consent for the current law of 2005 to be brought into line with the Criminal Procedure Code of 2011, has contributed to thirteen years of minors’ rights violations, as well as the perpetrators of offences and the victims/affected parties.
Regarding procedural rights, the report reaffirms that the legal framework is only partially aligned with the EU and that the action plan on the rights of victims and witnesses of criminal offences is rather slowly implemented, especially given that the Criminal Procedure Code has not yet been amended. Despite this, the European Commission concludes that victims are guaranteed access to justice and the right to testify, mentioning the possibility of testifying via video link in courts. However, it overlooks the fact that the primary place for victims to access justice and testify is before prosecutors, where there are no victim support services, nor is their establishment taken into consideration. Equipping the special rooms for testifying via video link has also been neglected.
Concerning access to justice, the European Commission first highlights the need to raise awareness among citizens about the existence of free legal aid, and only later emphasises the need to enhance capacities and collaboration among various service providers. It also states that changes to procedural and other laws, on which amendments to the Law on Free Legal Aid depend, are significantly delayed.
Great attention of the Commission geared towards the state of freedom of expression and assembly
When comparing the findings to the ones of the previous Report, there has been at least some limited progress in the field of freedom of expression and media. Although the Report covers the period from June 2022 to June 2023, the European Commission also reflects on recently adopted media laws, highlighting their positive aspects. However, domestic journalist associations remain highly critical of various versions of the text of these laws, including the final one. In this regard, it is only briefly indicated that the legislative process was not carried out following EU legal principles and standards. The Report adds that “state enterprise ownership of the media was prominent in the discussions”, but does not mention that the adopted solutions pave the way for the return of the state to the ownership structure of the media, contrary to the previously proclaimed goals of the government and EU requirements.
Various forms of pressure and attacks aimed towards the media and journalists, including the increasing number of SLAPP lawsuits, come from government representatives. It is noted how the existing legal framework excessively restricts reporting on ongoing criminal proceedings and how media outlets that regularly violate the Code of Journalists consistently receive funds from the public budget, especially at the local level. It is assessed that the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) has not consistently demonstrated its independence, and two competitions for the allocation of national frequency have been closely monitored.
When it comes to freedom of assembly, the European Commission reflects on the shortcomings in establishing accountability within police forces, for incidents that erupted during protests in Belgrade in July 2020 and in Šabac at the end of 2021. It emphasises that government critics are under pressure from institutions, especially those who protested against the glorification of war criminals, for "Serbia against violence," and for environmental protection. The EC highlights that the right to freedom of assembly also applies to public officials, although without any further explanation as to why this is important in the context of practices in Serbia.
The operative autonomy of the police is imperative for the new law on internal affairs
Regarding the controversial Draft Law on Internal Affairs, the European Commission insists that this regulation be used for establishing the operative autonomy in the work of the police. This represents one of prEUgovor’s requests, which are continually being overlooked by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, despite the dialogue initiated at the beginning of 2023, to improve the text of this draft after it was twice withdrawn from the public debate. The fact that the EU is closely monitoring the drafting of such an important regulation for police reform and the protection of human rights, sends a positive message. Among other things, it reaffirms the civil society’s assessment, which states that the Ministry of Internal Affairs still has not justified the necessity and proportionality of introducing a system of smart surveillance in public areas, which is also a part of the infamous Draft.
A moderate improvement has been noticed in the field of fighting against organised crime once again. The regular recommendations of the European Commission are reiterated, coinciding with those from the Alarm report, regarding the reassessment of the role secret services should have in criminal investigations.
Prominent cases before the courts are mentioned explicitly for the first time - Jovanjica, Šarić, and Belivuk, where final judgments are still pending. Greater accountability of Organised Crime Prosecutor’s Office towards the public is sought, especially in cases where an investigation has been halted, or criminal charges dropped. Better results in seizing assets acquired through criminal activities are demanded, with special attention given to firearms and human trafficking.
Praise and criticism on the topic of migration and asylum
The report gives a general assessment of individual subchapters on the topic of migration and asylum but neglects to give a qualitative overview of the effects of implemented activities and the achieved changes that are highlighted in this area. One of the key EC recommendations is still the alignment of the national visa policy with the EU visa policy, due to the fact that EU countries have detected an increased influx of citizens from various countries with which Serbia has a visa-free policy. Additionally, it is necessary to improve the procedure for migrant registration, as well as to strengthen the return policies.
The Draft Law on Amendments to the Law on Citizenship has been withdrawn from the parliamentary procedure, and this has been viewed positively by the Commission, stating that it deems the Draft as a potential security threat, because it will allow free travel for citizens of countries that would otherwise have to obtain a visa from EU member states.
The report commends Serbia, as a country in transition, for taking significant steps in managing migration flows to EU countries. It also notes certain delays in the implementation of the strategic document and action plan for integrated border management and suggests that access to information about the asylum process needs to be further improved, especially at airports in Niš and Kragujevac.
In contrast to the Alarm report, the EC report does not highlight the need to resolve the legal status of the majority of individuals whose presence is recorded on the territory of Serbia, nor does it address the sustainability and effects of actions carried out by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in areas where an increased presence of migrants is recorded outside official accommodation centres. The report also underscores the need to establish a sustainable accommodation system, taking into consideration that the funding for personnel managing the centres relies on EU support.
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).
Key product of the Coalition is its semi-annual independent shadow report on Cluster 1 reforms in Serbia.
Watch a short video with a retrospective on a decade of prEUgovor’s work (English subtitles).