After the publication of the new EU enlargement methodology last year, numerous commentators stated that its application to Montenegro and Serbia will not dramatically change the current rules. This was confirmed in the proposal of the European Commission, which reached the media in the region last week. Should the Member States decide to endorse the current proposals, the interim rule of law benchmarks will become a category with an even greater weight in the future, which is notable, but hardly surprising.
From the very beginning of the EU accession negotiations – in 2012 for Montenegro and in 2014 for Serbia – the principle has been that the overall speed of opening and closing chapters will depend on reforms in Chapters 23: Justice and Fundamental Rights and 24: Justice, Freedom and Security, due to their strong connection with the basic values of the EU. In short – if there is no progress in the rule of law, there is no progress in the process as a whole.
The importance of Chapters 23 and 24 for the European Union can be seen in the fact that Montenegro and Serbia first had to meet the benchmarks for opening these chapters, only to receive the so-called interim benchmarks. Only when they are fulfilled, the closing benchmarks will be determined. By then, it has been expected, the negotiations in most of other chapters should be concluded as well.
The interim benchmarks for Montenegro were established in 2013, for Serbia in 2016, and have not been fully met to date. When it comes to Chapter 23, they include amending the constitution in the field of the judiciary, various measures for greater independence of the courts, more efficient fight against corruption and protection of human rights.
Both Montenegro and Serbia have adopted Action Plans to implement these reforms. However, in recent years, progress of both countries has been worryingly slow. The distant year 2015 was the last one in which European Commission assessed that there had been some progress in freedom of expression in either Serbia or Montenegro. This area is a part of Chapter 23.
Now, however, the governments will have to “throw themselves” into implementing reforms if they want to move forward. The European Commission states in its proposal that no other chapter will be closed until the interim benchmarks in Chapters 23 and 24 are met. And in order to complete the negotiation process, all negotiation chapters must be closed.
According to Jovana Spremo, coordinator of the Working Group for Chapter 23 of Serbia’s National Convention on the EU, the idea of not closing other chapters until the interim benchmarks for Chapters 23 and 24 are met is probably the most important element in clarifying the application of the new EU accession methodology.
“Such clearer conditioning of further progress in other areas until the independence of the judiciary is ensured, until the prosecution and the police are able to act without the dictates of the governing structure, to work on combating corruption and organized crime and, above all, to ensure the protection of human rights of Serbian citizens, is very important because it shows how important the rule of law is for all other areas in which we harmonize the legal framework with the EU “, says Spremo for our portal.
One of the main goals of the new methodology was to convince member states with a greater dose of skepticism towards enlargement that the rule of law will remain a key condition for EU membership. This was, among other things, a reaction to the unsatisfactory results achieved by Montenegro and Serbia.
The already mentioned Action Plans for Chapters 23 and 24, therefore, will become even more important documents. Jovana Marović, Executive Director of the Politikon Network from Podgorica, however, says the Commission missed an opportunity, at least in the case of Montenegro, to speed up reforms by insisting on the new Action Plans. Namely, the Commission proposes that the current documents remain in force.
“The focus is still on the interim benchmarks that were defined at the very beginning of the process, and which are not specific enough to help the negotiating states to better respond to the demands. In that sense, I am of the opinion that new measures and priorities should be defined now, and not if problems in meeting the benchmarks occur”, says Jovana Marović, referring to the Commission’s proposal that new action plans will be proposed only if problems arise in the negotiations. According to her, these problems already exist.
“Therefore, Montenegro and Serbia should update existing or adopt new action plans. With the existing action plans in Montenegro, the interim benchmarks cannot be met “, says Jovana Marović.
Will Serbia open new chapters more quickly?
Although interim benchmarks are likely to become a much more relevant phrase if this Commission proposal is adopted, by far the most well-known term related to the new methodology are the so-called “clusters” – groups of negotiating chapters that will be opened at the same time.
The existing 33 negotiating chapters are divided into six clusters. In theory, North Macedonia and Albania, the countries that have yet to open them, will not have to go through the long and tedious processes of opening one chapter at a time, which Serbia and Montenegro have gone through. The goal of this change is to achieve greater dynamism. However, the question is whether the situation will change drastically when it comes to Serbia.
For Montenegro, clusters are no longer relevant, because in 2020 it opened all chapters. Serbia, on the other hand, did not open any that year and remained at 18, which was a worrying sign for many and a clear message that the EU is not satisfied with the results of reforms in Serbia. The remaining unopened chapters are in different clusters. This means that Serbia does not have to open whole clusters, but only their remaining parts.
The European Commission proposed to assess the situation in each cluster in order to find the biggest obstacles to their opening. The Member States, which will decide on the opening of the remaining clusters, will then be informed of the situation in them and the fulfillment of the benchmarks for their opening.
However, in addition to meeting the benchmarks related to individual areas – such as internal market, environment or competition – it will also be necessary to meet the criteria of the rule of law.
As the Commission stated, clusters for Serbia will be opened “if the member states agree that sufficient progress has been made in the area of the rule of law”. Assuming that chapters are not opened in 2020 due to the rule of law – and this was confirmed by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth during the German presidency of the Council at the end of last year – that means that the situation has not changed much. Serbia will open new chapters, either within or outside the clusters, only when it has made sufficient progress in the area of the rule of law.
Political intergovernmental conferences – too early to assess the impact
One of the novelties of the changed methodology is the introduction of regular political intergovernmental conferences between the EU Member States and the candidate countries. Until now, intergovernmental conferences have been held only when chapters have been opened or closed, and this measure would provide an additional platform for the meetings of representatives of member governments and candidates.
Given that Member States decide on each next step in the accession process, the aim of these conferences would be to send clear political messages about what candidates are expected to accomplish and within a certain timeframe, probably in a language more precise than European Commission technical jargon.
According to the proposal to apply the new methodology to Montenegro and Serbia, political intergovernmental conferences would be held at least once a year, after the Commission adopts the enlargement package.
“By holding regular intergovernmental conferences once a year, regardless of the opening and closing of the chapter, it would be easier for all those who monitor the progress of the candidate countries to clearly show how certain things in the EC Report can be moved or improved. This is especially important in order to hear the opinions of the EU Member States “, says Jovana Spremo.
Jovana Marović emphasises, however, that without a significant change of attitudes when it comes to enlargement, one should not have too high expectations.
“Regular intergovernmental conferences once a year are a good sign, but they will not have a special role unless the attitude of some EU Member States towards enlargement policy changes,” she said.
Both interlocutors also point out that it will be interesting to see how rewards for faster progress in reforms and sanctions for lack of progress or setbacks will be applied. These are the measures also envisaged by the new methodology, but in the case of Serbia and Montenegro it remains unknown what that would look like – at least based on the European Commission’s current proposal, which only mentions that “corrective measures” that already exist will be applied.