Serbia and European Union already began the negotiations for the accession in a short period of time, but there isn´t an official date. The Co-Founder of European Policy Center of Belgrade, Milena Lazarevic gave an interview to The Democrat about the relations between two sides, and also the benefits for peace in the Balkans.

What stage are the negotiations between Serbia and European Union?

Serbia and the EU have started the Accession Negotiations in 2014 and since then ten (out of 35) negotiation chapters have been opened, two of which have been temporarily closed. The last two which have been opened are chapters 7 – Intellectual Property Law and 29 – Customs Union. They were opened on the 20th of June this year.

What are the main requirements from European Union to Serbia?

The EU has defined its broad criteria for any European country to join it almost 15 years ago (in 1993). Those basic criteria, called the Copenhagen criteria, include stability of democratic institutions which should be capable of protecting human and minority rights, free market economy and capacity of the local businesses to sustain market pressures in the EU, as well as adoption of all legislative requirements which exist at EU level. Serbia is obliged to continue implementing the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) and to fully harmonise its legal system with the EU acquis communautaire. The greatest attention is given to the Chapter 23 – Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, Chapter 24 – Justice, Freedom and Security, as well as Chapter 35 – Other Issues. These three chapters have a “suspension effect”, meaning that the entire accession process could be suspended in case of no progress in these three chapters. The last Chapter is unique for Serbia’s case, since it requires further normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. Whether further chapters will be opened, depends on Serbia’s success rate regarding the previously mentioned chapters. Also, Serbia needs to successfully reform its public administration and ensure strong administrative capacities to implement the demanding EU legislation.

What will be the main benefits of Serbia became member of the European Union?

Based on the Copenhagen accession criteria, Serbia is supposed to develop stable institutions which would guarantee democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights; functional market economy and the ability to harmonise its legal system with the EU acquis communautaire. Therefore, the main benefits are consisted of the process of reforms, which has become much more demanding compared to the previous enlargement rounds, and which Serbia will undertake on its way of becoming a member state. After it becomes a member of the EU, Serbia is supposed to participate in the European decision-making process, as a well-functioning democracy.

Can it be problematic to become member in this political troubled phase for Europe?

It is true that the EU is facing a “troubled phase”, which is why the President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude van Juncker has said that the new enlargement wave will not happen until 2020. Consequentially, there has been less enthusiasm about the enlargement process on the EU side – though Juncker never implied that the process would stop. His statement clearly referred just to the very act of taking in new members. We are aware that in the meantime there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done, especially on the candidate countries’ side, so that work – the reforms and the negotiations process – needs to proceed. The opening of new chapters during each presidency of the EU does show that there is commitment to the process, even though the commitment to the very moment of accession is unclear.

What are the main problems of the European Union?

Since the EU is facing a number of pressing issues, it is still evolving and adapting. Most notable challenges are: the Brexit negotiations, threat of terrorist attacks, the rise of populism, refugee crisis, Greek financial crisis, situation in Ukraine and the latest Trump’s appearance. In the light of all of these events, the leaders of the EU have spoken about the “Multi-speed Europe”, which might represent Europe’s answer to these ongoing problems. After Brexit and Trump’s statements, Merkel has called Europe to “take its fate into its hands”. Therefore, these issues might potentially serve as a catalyst of further modifications in Europe in the near future.

How Serbia can help European Union to solve those problems?

We need to be realistic. Serbia is a small candidate country and as such it cannot help the EU regarding its most pressing issues. However, the refugee crisis represents a notable exception. The EU has commended Serbia’s efforts regarding its treatment of the refugees, unlike some of its member states, such as Hungary. Having in mind that Serbia is a part of the refugee route going to the EU, Serbia has been included in the EU coordination activities. Consequentially, Serbia represents an important partner of the EU regarding this issue. This example indeed shows that Serbia can be part of the solution to EU problems, rather than a source of problems. We need to work hard – both the government and the civil society – to acquire this constructive role in other areas as well in the years to come.

Accession of Serbia in European Union is very important to maintain stability in Balkans?

All of the countries in the Western Balkans have the aspiration to join the Union. Therefore, the Union remains as a common strategic goal of the countries in the region. As such, the Union has the ability to steer the relations in the Balkans. However, we have seen in the last couple of years that the region has been destabilizing itself. In that sense, even the president of the EU Commission Junker has argued that “if the Union collapses, you will have a new war in the Western Balkans”. This rising threat has been recognised by the Union, which is why Germany has come up as a leader which has initiated the “Berlin Process”, which is supposed to gather all of the leaders from the WB, giving them a platform for communication and further cooperation. In addition, Germany has announced a special financial package for the region, which has been dubbed as “Berlin Plus”, which is supposed to further stabilise the region. In a way, one could say that it is not really good for the Balkans to enter the EU because of the fear of a new war – and certainly not in line with the new image that we want our countries to acquire – but the stability argument has indeed remained a strong one in our accession process.

Serbia is in favour to other countries in the region, such as Montenegro, to be part of European Union?

Since Serbia is strongly committed to the EU, it is natural that they will support other countries in the region on their path to the EU. Serbian President Vučić has even called for a creation of a common market in the WB, as a way to further integrate the region, before they all join the EU in the future. This plan was endorsed by the European Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn, however, it has yet to be discussed with other countries in the region at the next summit in Trieste. I should also add that the civil society in Serbia is a staunch supporter of a stronger regional approach in advocating for enlargement of the EU to the Western Balkans and of the accession of all countries in the region to the Union.

If 23 of European Union recognized the independence of Kosovo, how Serbia will deal with those countries on that issue?

Even though 23 member states have recognised the independence, Serbia will continue harbouring good relations with these countries. Having in mind that five EU Member States have not recognised Kosovo’s independence, the EU is not asking Serbia to do so either. However, the EU is insisting that Belgrade and Pristina “normalise” their relations. Consequentially, the EU has acted as a mediator, inviting the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo* to Brussels, to further negotiate how the process of normalization would develop. So far, Serbia has been commended for successful activities in this field, but Kosovo* also needs to implement its part of the deal, especially the establishment of the so-called Association of Serb Municipalities.

When Serbia will became member of the European Union?

An answer to this question is impossible to give. However, it could be answered in which period it would definitely not become a member. As mentioned before, Juncker has said that there will be no enlargement until 2020. In addition, Vučić himself has said that Serbia is likely to join the Union until 2025. The whole process will depend on the pace of Serbia’s normalisation of relations with Kosovo and how it deals with Chapters 23 and 24, but also on the circumstances within the EU, especially the support of individual EU members to further enlargement. Serbia will need to do more on its EU path to improve its image and show to the European citizens that it is a worthy EU member.