The European Commission's annual Progress Reports serve as a major instrument and guide to European Union enlargement policy. Assembled by the Directorate General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), the Progress Reports include input from EU Delegations and other Directorates General and serve as a regular reference point for the Commission, other EU institutions, member state governments and beyond in relations with potential candidate and candidate countries.
Serbia became a candidate for membership in early 2012. Soon afterward, a government composed of two parties rooted in the 1990s nationalist authoritarian regime came to power. The government is led by Aleksandar Vučić of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), an offshoot of the wartime Serbian Radical Party led by war crimes indictee Vojislav Šešelj. To the surprise of many, the Vučić government pursued policies which were more assertively pro-EU than the preceding government, effectively led by then-President Boris Tadić – particularly in terms of the flagship policy of the Serbia-Kosovo Dialogue. External pressures created the incentives for this policy shift. Yet as the government enters its third year, its increasing concentration of power and authoritarian methods have become apparent.
DPC has endeavored to assess the content of the EC Progress Reports on Serbia since 2012 – and where necessary, prior reports – to determine how the reports reflect on the ground reality and actual adherence to EU commitments and values. As the authors expected, the reports have systematically downplayed negative developments in key reform areas – including democracy, rule of law, media, foreign policy, and Kosovo – in this period. The reports sometimes contradict each other over time, and even ignore significant problems altogether. Responsibility is infrequently laid on institutions, and almost never on individuals, which in a situation of such concentrated political power, is highly disingenuous. The frequency of these distortions and avoidance of unpleasant truths is most concentrated on the political criteria (Copenhagen Criteria), as opposed to the economic commitments undertaken by Serbia. This is particularly worrisome, given the fact that according to the EU’s legal documents, the very opening of negotiations signifies the sufficient fulfillment of political criteria – in which case monitoring of political criteria would logically cease in the Progress Reports. In practice, the EU has long ago moved beyond this outdated approach. Instead, in Serbia, the policy seems to be to soft pedal the criteria to avoid conflict with the government in Belgrade – and presumably to avoid embarrassment. The result is a government which can claim de facto support from EU institutions for its deepening concentration of power and rollback of civic freedoms.