The European Council decided today that the European Commission should immediately prepare for the accession negotiations with Serbia. However, the Accession Conference and the opening of the first chapters should not take place before 2014. Prior to that, the European Council needs to decide in December on whether the obligations agreed upon by Serbia and Kosovo in the May 22 implementation plan have been fulfilled until December.
The conclusion of the April 19 agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is worthy of recognition. With it, Serbia is starting to depart from policies which have been cause for unrest and conflict in the region for years. With such change of direction, the view of Serbian politics is freed up for the great grievances in Serbia – starting with corruption, ranging to the problems involving a great budget deficit, not least due to high costs of an overextended public sector and numerous loss-making companies owned by the state. Deindustrialization and mismanagement – the issues of the previous election campaign – are finally at the center of the political focus and call for effective combating. The accession negotiations, wisely used by the EU, can help in order to initiate a comprehensive transformation of Serbia. The date gives the right signal to that effect.
However, an agreement does not equal the reaching of the agreed-upon goals. The perception and open thematization of economic problems does not mean better politics. Has Serbia really “done everything“ – as is always underlined by the Serbian Government – that was expected by the European Union? Has she done everything that is necessary for Serbia?
There are visible steps ahead in the normalization of the relations towards Kosovo. An international recognition is yet to follow. However, liaison offices have been set up in both states, representatives were sent, Kosovo police and customs officers can move freely in the north of the country. The integrated border management is functioning, despite the fact that important border crossings towards Romania and Bulgaria remain blocked. It was agreed upon that the police and judiciary in the North are to be integrated in the Kosovo legal framework and its institutions and that the Kosovo Serbs will take part in the November 2013 elections. The first Serbian police stations were indeed closed. However: in order to secure consent from the Northern Kosovo Serbs, Kosovo accepted extensive compromises. Serbia is allowed to continue to finance structures and persons in Northern Kosovo – now publically; Kosovo adopts a broad Law on Amnesty that releases Serbs in the North, who for years have failed to pay taxes or are subject of suspicion concerning serious crimes, from criminal prosecution and enables them to take part in the public services of Kosovo; it is still not clear whether the total number of Serbs in the completely overcrowded public parallel structures in the North of Kosovo has to be taken over; the communities with Serbian majority receive the possibility of establishing a Serbian district community with broad autonomous rights in the fields of healthcare, education and communal self-government/urban planning – this, too, is a concession by Kosovo, largely in the framework of the Ahtisaari Plan. The issues concerning concessions by Serbia – telecommunications, energy supply, return of illegally obtained cadastre documents or even just the removal of the symbolically important road blocks on the Ibar Bridge – came to no agreement until now, i.e. is being delayed. When it comes to those issues, Serbia and the Northern Kosovo Serbs are displaying no will to reach an agreement and little hurry.
In Serbia, too, there have been more announcements as opposed to real results. There was progress pertaining to combating corruption. Numerous police investigations took place and the first criminal procedures were launched. The arrest of Miroslav Mišković, a fellow traveler of Milošević and today’s richest tycoon of Serbia, has great symbolic significance. However, are the charges brought against him also legally well-founded? There are many indications that he is charged with crimes which did not exist during his actions. One could raise the question whether corruption – the aggressive and illegal occupation of public property and the adequate support by the state – should be combated by means of undermining the rule of law. For, the prohibition of retroactivity of criminal laws belongs to the basics of liberal societies. Nullum crimen sine lege.
So, there are sufficient doubts on whether Serbia’s path towards peaceful neighborly relations in the region and the European Union is irreversible. Doubts are also caused by threats of stopping the process of normalization should the accession negotiations not start soon. Significant doubts concerning the democratic and European attitude of the largest ruling party arise from a coalition formed by SNS with right-wing extremist party Dveri in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city, in order to secure a majority. Doubts are also caused by threats of proposing new elections in the case of denied or delayed start of accession negotiations. What could be improved by that? The realization of the implementation plan with Kosovo would be surely called into question by doing so. Was Serbia not serious about the plan? Should it continue in the familiar fashion with the method of ruling Serbian parties that install their personnel in the already bloated public sector? This, too, is a form of corruption, of privileging party supporters and discriminating many young qualified persons looking for a job in the public sector or in companies, simply because they were trained to perform such work and are good in it.
The European Union is well-advised to wait first for more visible success and not express its satisfaction with declarations of intent, action plans or new laws. This is not a matter of new conditions, but of the realization of obligations. Therefore, the EU is well-advised to wait for this realization and then to realize its promise to the Serbian people next year – namely, that Serbia was welcome to the European community of values, where it takes on responsibilities and may expect solidarity and assistance.
Dr. Andreas Poltermann
Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Belgrade