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Novelties in Serbia's EU accession process

September 01 2020 | Belgrade

Novelties in Serbia's EU accession process

At the beginning of the year, the EU College of Commissioners adopted a new methodology for the EU accession negotiations with the aim of re-establishing a credible membership perspective for the Western Balkans. Given that all candidate countries at the Western Balkans, including Serbia, accepted the new methodology, would you please explain the essence of the new methodology and the way it will be applied to our country?

We have opened more than a half of the negotiation chapters, conducting our negotiations under criteria that have been very strict and rigorous from the start, even when they changed and applied only to Serbia. The new methodology should not pose an obstacle for us because we want the pace of the reforms we are implementing to be transferred onto our progress on the European path and opening of as many chapters as possible, which has not been the case so far. On 25 March 2020, the EU Council supported the European Commission’s Communication ‘Enhancing the accession process – A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans’ of 5 February 2020 aimed at intensifying the accession process of the countries of the region. The most important components of the new methodology are the following: (1) strengthening the credibility of the process of political dialogue, (2) the introduction of the so-called clusters (six), in which chapters have been placed according to areas, and (3) enhanced political steering and stimulating candidate countries. In the new methodology, the obligations a country must fulfil remain the same as before, which implies alignment with the EU acquis and its efficient implementation. The opening and the closing of chapters puts the focus on certain areas that could gain priority for the purpose of faster alignment, which requires administrative capacities not only at the central but also at the local level. We will see in which way the new methodology can be applied and how the progress Serbia has achieved so far will be valorised. During the German presidency, we will strive to develop a “roadmap” and a plan for its implementation in terms of the announced EU economic and investment package that should be officially published in autumn. 

Is our administration, notably the negotiating structures, preparing for the new model of negotiations? What do you see as the greatest challenges for the administration regarding the new methodology? Where could we potentially see problems or delays?

The EU membership of the Republic of Serbia and the continuation of the European integration process are the main strategic goals of our foreign policy. What is more, the most important reforms have been implemented through the process of European integration. As the Minister of European Integration and the Chair of the Council of the Coordination Body for EU Accession, I held a special meeting of the Council on 31 July 2020, whose aim was to appropriately prepare the negotiating structures for the next stage of the negotiation process, to consider repercussions of the new methodology and discuss IPA planning that is related to the new methodology. We discussed the current state of play in Serbia’s EU accession process, primarily the key issues regarding the realisation of the National Programme for the Adoption of the Acquis (NPAA), as well as chapters through the clusters established by the new methodology. We talked about the need to adjust the stages of the preparation of action plans for meeting the opening benchmarks for specific chapters and the preparation of negotiating positions according to the designated division of chapters into clusters, ensuring that the deadlines for the adoption of implementing laws and by-laws be formed in accordance with the pace of the realisation of the NPAA, which should contain precise plans for the alignment of the Serbian legislative framework with the Acquis and for fulfilling the conditions for their implementation in practice. In addition, it was concluded that institutions should timely plan the capacities necessary for the efficient implementation of reforms, so as to contribute to the improvement of the pace of the accession process in the following period.

Will the role of the local self-government change in this new enlargement model and in which way, bearing in mind that the majority of EU regulations is implemented at the local level?

The role of the local self-government is already changing as part of the public administration reform conducted within the EU accession process, which implies transforming the local self-government into an efficient and responsible administration that acts as a transparent service for citizens. Under the new methodology, the public administration reform is placed in the cluster related to fundamentals, i.e. the rule of law, public administration reform, public procurement, financial control and statistics. The public administration reform process will be accelerated to achieve full modernisation through the introduction and implementation of new policies and the digitisation of information. This, in turn, will strengthen the role of the local self-government in the new enlargement model, in accordance with the principles of good governance that contribute to a more efficient application of new regulations that have been aligned with the EU regulations and standards, as well as with the good practices of local self-governments in the EU member states. This process is conducted with the aim of placing the administration in the service of all Serbian citizens by considerably saving their time and money.

What are the capacities of the administration both at the national and the local level in terms of fulfilling the obligations stemming from the accession process, whose number will only grow in the future?

The public administration reform is one of the key priorities in the process of European integration, which is why, at my personal initiative, EUR 80 million has been allocated from the 2015 IPA programme in the form of budget support to the public administration reform, where a portion of the funds has been intended for the improvement of the civil service system. As a result, the 2019 EC Progress Report positively assessed the progress achieved in the area of professional development of employees at the central and local level of government and in establishing the National Academy for Public Administration. This ensured a systemic approach to improving the competencies and skills of public administration employees and created conditions for a better quality of services provided to the citizens and economy. Furthermore, as the National IPA Coordinator responsible for the programming of annual IPA programmes, I place special attention to projects aimed at improving general or specific competencies of public administration employees, which is why a great number of projects closely related to specific sector policies and negotiation chapters always contain the professional development component. Of course, as European integration is a comprehensive and dynamic process, we have numerous activities ahead of us regarding the improvement of our administration so that it would be able to meet the development needs of Serbia in the context of EU accession. 

How can we help municipalities and cities in Serbia to better prepare for the reforms waiting on that path and for the EU funds available to them as local self-governments? 

In the following period, local self-governments must devote special attention to strategic planning and improving their capacities for the preparation and realisation of development and infrastructure projects. This is important not only in terms of achieving better utilisation of the pre-accession funds, but also as part of the preparations for much larger post-accession EU funds. Namely, within its responsibilities in the negotiation process, the Ministry of European Integration developed the Action Plan for Negotiation Chapter 22 – Regional Policy and Coordination of Structural Instruments, where we are now waiting for the European Commission’s comments. This Action Plan envisages the implementation of training courses and professional development programmes at the regional and local level, where SCTM and regional development agencies are recognised as key partners. As the National IPA Coordinator, I would also like to inform you that, in the previous period, we have worked on securing a significant amount of EU grants to local self-governments from the 2020 IPA programme, and that staggering EUR 40 million will be allocated for the realisation of development projects, including the construction of economic and social infrastructure such as schools, kindergartens, healthcare centres, sports facilities etc.

Do you expect some chapters to be opened by the end of the German EU presidency and how do you see the future course of Serbia’s European integration?

We have welcomed the beginning of Germany’s presidency, which started on 1 July 2020, and we have expressed our hope that Germany, as an EU founding country, will introduce a new quality into the enlargement process, striving to ensure a greater credibility and enhanced pace of the process. We have submitted 5 prepared negotiating positions to the EU Council: CH 2 – Freedom of movement for workers, CH 3 – Right of establishment and freedom to provide services, CH 14 – Transport policy, CH 21 – Trans-European networks, and CH 27 – Environment and climate change, while the positions for CH 28 – Consumer and health protection and CH 10 – Information society and media are in the final stages of preparation. At the end of Croatia’s presidency, despite the fact that we had several technically fully prepared negotiation chapters, the EU member states did not approve the opening of new chapters. As President Vučić announced, the new Government will place additional focus on the European integration process as the main path of reforms, and I expect that all line ministries in the new Government will be focused and ready to implement reforms in the area of strengthening the rule of law and economic development, at an accelerated pace. We remain firmly committed to the continuation of the reform process in all areas that are in the best interest of our citizens from all parts of Serbia.

Source: Standing Conference of Towns and Municipalities