“Not even the internal upheaval in Germany and France, or the fact that Europe is preoccupied with elections should slow us down, or deter us from accomplishing our goals. We are listening intently to the messages coming from Brussels and other European capitals, we are looking for our place and we are trying to keep enlargement on the EU agenda“, says Tanja Miščević, Head of the Negotiating Team for Serbia’s Accession to the EU at the beginning of 2019, the year when Western Balkans will not rank that high on any European agenda.”
Do you associate this extended stalemate in the dialogue with Kosovo with a major slowdown in the negotiations about Serbia’s accession in the EU?
— First of all, I would disagree with you that there is a major slowdown in the accession negotiations. If we look back at the development of the accession negotiations so far and the pace at which chapters have been opened, there is no change in pace, i.e. on average, we open two chapters at each intergovernmental conference. Of course, I am not that happy with there being no change in pace and this is something I always bring up in front of the European Commission and the Member States. The assessment of our progress in a given area and our readiness should be ranked better. The dialogue about the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Priština is being monitored under Chapter 35 and this chapter, apart from the one about the rule of law, holds crucial importance for the negotiation proces. But, unlike the rule of law, not everything hinges on Serbia in the dialogue so due to Priština introducing certain measures, the dialogue has been at a standstill for quite some time now.
What about Chapters 23 and 24? How do you interpret the European Commission’s report about Serbia which is quite critical about the achieved progress?
— In the last Progress Report about Chapters 23 and 24, the European Commission has continued with its relativelly balanced approach to assessing the current state in the rule of law. The Report recognizes the latency that we are also aware of, and it also recognizes that we are trying to correct it. We did not want to implement some of the measures in haste like the amendments to the Constitution, as it was more important for us for the process to be inclusive and for the text of the document to be checked by the Venice Commission twice, rather than worry about deadlines. In 2016, when we wrote the relevant Action Plans, we set rather ambitious deadlines because we wanted to expedite the process. However, there are a number of things that affect the process, both in our and the EU institutions. Hence, in 2018, we started revising Action Plans for Chapters 23 and 24 in order to adapt the activities and the deadlines to interim criteria while bearing in mind our experience in implementing the previous plans. The time has come now to sum up and analyze the current sitaution and revise everything that we have done so far, as well as to continue and expedite reforms in the segment of the rule of law.
So far, Serbia has not skipped over a single cycle in terms of opening of new chapters in the accession negotiations, but, as the rule of thumb, this always happened in the nick of time, just before year-end and realistically or apparently, as a result of some sort of coercion. What is your take on this?
— The country that presides over the Council of the European Union determines its own schedule when taking over the presidency, as well as its agenda and priorities, which, in turn, sets the dates for intergovernmental conferences with the participation of the countries that are in the accession negotiation process. The thing that slows us down, and not only us but also Montenegro and possibly any country that is about to engage in the accession negotiations, is the way the reports about the rule of law chapters are being drafted, plus, in our case, the reports about Chapter 35. It is absolutely crucial that, before a chapter is opened, Member States have an insight in the state of the rule of law and this insight comes from the European Commission. The Commission does that either in the form of a report, also called The Non-Paper on the Rule of Law, or in an annual progress report. Such reporting forms slow down the negotiation process and opening of new chapters, because it is the report that results in scheduling only one intergovernmental conference every six months. We have been trying to point out to the European Commission and Member States that such approach is slow and unsustainable, while, at the same time, proposing other reporting options. We hope that one of the next presiding countries will have a more understanding attitude towards this challenge.
The decision to open Chaptes 17 and 18 has been made, although there had been announcements that some other chapters might be opened. Did you have your own favourites in terms of chapters considering that several of them had already been prepared for opening? What implications does opening of the aforementioned or other chapters have on the pace of the European integration process in practice?
— It is the Member States that decide on opening of chapters and our plans and expectations do not necessarily match theirs. Some countries are more interested in the enlargement process, some are better acquainted with the situation in the region, while some show more interest in certain segments and act accordingly. I don’t have a favourite chapter because I am well-aware how important is each chapter and how much time, resources and enthusiasm are spent by negotiation groups on drafting negotiation documents. On the other hand, I think that it would be a great success when we open the chapters about agriculture and food safety, and environmental protection, considering the extensiveness of the legal framework, the resources and the importance that these chapters have for Serbia. Currently, the Member States are discussing five negotiation chapters – Chapter 9 (Financial Services), Chapter 2 (Freedom of Movement for Workers), Chapter 4 (Free Movement of Capital), Chapter 14 (Transport Policy) and Chapter 21 (Trans-European Networks). We have been working on other chapters too, both those who have and don’t have criteria, with the intention of presenting plans for every single of these chapters as soon as possible. Sooner we make plans, sooner we are going to start implementing them.
Is there any logic in investing a lot of effort in the European integration process now when France and Germany are struggling internally and are focused mostly on themselves?
— Actually, now is the time that makes perfect sense because we should also be dealing with ourselves, our reforms and standards. Obviously, becoming an EU member is not the sole goal here. We are listening intently to the messages coming from Brussels and other European capitals, we are looking for our place and we are trying to keep enlargement on the EU agenda. Actually, we are confident that we can help with finding a solution for various European crises, just like we were able to help during the migrant crisis.
It took some countries five years to finalize the negotiations about joint foreign and defence policy, while Serbia is still at an initial stage. Why is progress so slow in this segment?
— The fact that there is no Screening Report for Chapter 31 (Foreign, Security and Defence Policy) puts Serbia in a rather unique situation which is that, even after five years, we still have not finished the process of analytical review of our legislation. The situation is oneof-a-kind because Chapter 31 does not specify the parts of the Acquis that candidate countries should integrate in their own legislation, but it contains something called „soft law“, or rather recommendations and principles. Truth be told, Member States have different approaches to what to do with this chapter in the case of Serbia and they still disagree on it. Also, there are rather particular relations with the countries that have or have not recognized the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo, bearing in mind that Serbia adapts its foreign policy to preservation of its sovereignty. I do hope that Member States have a good grasp of the fact that the EU’s foreign policy is not only about harmonizing foreign policy stances, like in the case of the sanctions against Russia. There are also elements like Serbia’s commitment to preserving peace and security, and the fact that our country has the highest number of soldiers participating in the EU and UN peacekeeping missions, compared not only to the countries in the region but also to other candidate countries. In 2017, Serbia became a member of the HELBROCK Battlegroup comprised of Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece and Ukraine. We also rank 8th in terms of the number of soldiers participating in the EU’s peacekeeping operations Also, there is the drafting of strategic documents and compliance with the Global Strategy, cooperation in the coalition against terrorism, cooperation in the prohibition of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the development of equipment and weapons, and many other forms of cooperation between Serbia and the EU. We expect that the remaining Member States will soon give their consent to the adoption of the Screening Report, as this is the first step in preparing the negotiating position and opening this chapter.
What bearing does the ever-changing situation in the field have on the countries that are undergoing the harmonization process? NATO is no longer the only option, as there is frequent mention of the formation of an European army.
— The relations between Serbia and NATO have been at a very high level for quite some time now. Actually, this is the highest level that a country aspiring to become an EU member can have with NATO. We have adopted the individual Action Plan regarding our participation in the Partnership for Peace that has been implemented for a few years now. In terms of the European army and the talks about forming one that have been quite pronounced in the last few years, this is a topic that is cyclical and has been talked about since the formation of the three Communities. This time around, the reason why these talks are taking place is the discussion about the place that NATO has and its role especially in reference to the relations between trans-Atlantic partners. However, we can say with certainty that the cooperation between NATO and the EU in the segment of defence and safety is here to stay because these two organizations are compatible and are founded on the same value system.
Can we also mention labour legislation? While we are still struggling with Chapter 19, Europe is already contemplating profound changes in job contracts. Is it plausible to expect that one day, when we become Europeans, what we view as European will no longer be?
— In order to illustrate just how demanding the negotiation and reform processes are, I often use the moving target metaphore because it best demonstrates the fact that what is expected from us today can change in relation to what will be expected of us in 2020 and later. We are following closely the developments in Brussels, at the plennary sessions of the European Parliament in Strasbourg and in the Member States. We are carefully assessing the areas where biggest changes could be made and consequentially, we leave certain reforms for the latter part of the negotiations. In regard to labour legislation, we are currently finalizing the adoption of the Action Plan for Chapter 19 (Social Policy and Employment). We are also in consultations with civil society stakeholders and I am confident that this Action Plan will be the foundation for improving the legal framework and building administrative capacities in this segment. Furthermore, the Plan takes into consideration the development of the EU’s Acquis in the areas of labour and labour relations.
Is it realistic to expect for Serbia to finalize the accession negotiations by 2023? What does your schedule show?
— Our schedule shows that we have years and years of hard work behind and ahead of us. So far, we have opened 16 chapters, and closed 2. The revised National Programme for the Adoption of the Legal Acquis of the European Union is devised in such a way that the full harmonization of domestic legislation with the European one is expected by the end of 2021. That is the date we are running with, but we still have a lot to do to prove that we can successfully apply these adopted norms. In addition to preparing for the opening of the remaining chapters, we are working hard on meeting the closing criteria. What we cannot influence is the enlargement sentiment among the Member States. 2019 is the year of elections in the European Union, after which it will be clearer what can we expect during the the term of the next Commission and Parliament.
MEASURE OF SUCCESS
It would be a great success when we open the chapters about agriculture and food safety, and environmental protection, considering the extensiveness of the legal framework, the resources and the importance that these chapters have for Serbia.