On the 21st January 2014, the 1st Intergovernmental Conference was held in Brussels, marking the formal start of Serbia’s accession negotiations. The beginning of EU accession negotiations brought positive publicity to Belgrade, the highest one since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic.
In 2009 Serbia formally applied for EU membership and in March 2012 Serbia was granted EU candidate status. The Stabilization and Association Agreement between the EU and Serbia entered into force in September 2013. The European Council decided in June 2013 to open accession negotiations with Serbia, adopting in December 2013 the negotiating framework and agreeing to hold the 1st Intergovernmental Conference with Serbia in January 2014. Following this conference, a bust of positive comments appeared in well-known and widely read newspapers such as the BBC, The Economists, the Global Post and the Wall Street Journal.
“A new chapter”
Jose Manuel Barosso, the President of the European Commission, stated that the conference which opened Serbia’s EU accession negotiations, « is the start of an entirely new chapter in our relations and a major success », and added: « I commend Serbia for its reform efforts and for the progress made over the past years. The citizens of Serbia have strong European aspirations, and we will continue to support Serbia to make progress, step by step, on its European path. »
BBC’s title on the day of the conference was: “Serbia transforming from pariah to EU partner”, emphasizing the numerous changes Serbia made in a short period. The Global Post declared that the Serbian progress on the path towards EU “will be an example for other countries in Eastern Balkan”. This picture is very different from the one, mostly negative, western medias have been promoting since the 90s. EU membership may be a starting point from which the global image of Serbia will be improved and prejudices erased.
Just the beginning of the path
Barosso also underlined the challenges for Serbia in the key areas of rule of law, the reform of the judiciary, the fight against corruption and against organized crime, public administration reform, and independence of key institutions, media freedom, anti-discrimination and protection of minorities.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule presented the negotiation framework and plan which will be used in negotiations with Serbia in the following years. This plan includes the request for full normalization of relations with Kosovo as the key to Serbia’s accession path.
Reactions in Serbia
The Serbs have been voting in majority for a pro-European government since 2006. The chances for the accession negotiations to start seemed little, but now that they have finally started, the reactions among the citizens are positive but not quite enthusiastic. Nearly all the political parties greeted this success of the government except for the national conservative party – the Democratic Party of Serbia lead by Vojislav Kostunica. According to the results of a survey of the Office for European Integrations of the Serbian government, conducted in December 2013, 51% of Serbs are for the EU, 22% against and 27% wouldn’t vote or would not know what to vote for. On the other hand, there is a growing discontent and mistrust in the Serbian politicians followed by a rising unemployment in the country.
The international community may be satisfied by this step towards the EU, but the path to the final EU accession is still long and living conditions in Serbia are not getting better.