European Commission report warns of political polarization in Serbia

NEWS 08.11.202316:49 0 komentara
REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

The European Commission said in its progress report on Serbia that political polarization is still in place and has deepened following the mass shootings in May.

It said that Belgrade still needs to address a number of long-standing recommendations by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) and Council of Europe bodies concerning the electoral framework.

The progress report noted tension in parliament debates between the ruling majority and opposition and the fact that most of sessions were called with the minimum advance notice of 24 hours, which should only be used in exceptional circumstances. “The code of conduct was not systematically applied and the frequent use of inflammatory language was not penalised. Sanctions and fines were only issued to opposition MPs,” it said.

“Further efforts are needed to ensure systematic and genuine cooperation between the government and civil society,” the report said and warned of continued verbal attacks and smear campaigns against those organisations, including by high-level officials.

The European Commission feels that Serbia is moderately prepared in terms of public administration reform with limited progress was made in this area.

“Serbia has some level of preparation when it comes to its judicial system. Overall, some progress was made during the reporting period. Serbia took an important step towards strengthening the independence and accountability of the judiciary with the timely adoption of most of the implementing legislation giving practical effect to the 2022 constitutional amendments,” the report said.

It said that Serbia has some level of preparation in the fight against corruption but that limited progress was made, including on last year’s recommendations. “There was a slight increase in the number of new investigations and final convictions in high-level corruption cases, but the number of new indictments fell. There were no cases of final confiscation of assets, for which a track record is required. Serbia still needs to adopt a national anti-corruption strategy and the accompanying action plan,” it added.

“In the fight against organised crime, Serbia has some level of preparation. Limited progress was made in addressing last year’s recommendations, in particular on detection and prevention of migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings. A slight increase in financial investigations and confiscation of assets can also be noted in 2022,” the report said. “Serbia is late in conducting an analysis of the roles and practices of security services and of the National Security Council in carrying out criminal investigations relating to serious and organised crime, although preparatory works have started. There is well- established cooperation with CEPOL, Eurojust, Europol and INTERPOL, notably on weapons trafficking, drugs trafficking, and the fight against high-profile organised crime groups. Serbia needs to further increase the technical, financial and human resources capacity of the Prosecutor’s Office for Organised Crime to perform its duties in an independent manner,” the progress report said.

It said that Serbia’s legislative and institutional framework for upholding fundamental rights is broadly in place.

Limited progress was made in terms of freedom of expression. It said that the police and prosecution reacted swiftly to several cases of attacks and threats, working with the standing working group on the safety of journalists. “However, cases of threats, intimidation, hate speech and violence against journalists remain a concern, as is the increase of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP), notably launched by members of national and local authorities, that may produce a chilling effect including self- censorship,” it added.

“Serbia continued implementing the action plan of the media strategy,” it said and added that the recently adopted media laws will strengthen the independence of the regulatory body for electronic media (REM), codify the role of the Press Council and render the process of public co-funding more transparent and accessible. The report said that legislative process was not finalised fully in line with the EU acquis and European standards. “The ownership of media by state-owned enterprises was prominent in deliberations. An important step was taken with respect to the application of criteria aligned with the EU acquis to the assessment of state aid, while it should be clarified that antitrust and merger control rules apply to the media sector and safeguards to protect media pluralism and editorial independence remain to be improved,” the report said.

“Serbia is at a good level of preparation and has made some progress in developing a functioning market economy,” the report said adding that the state retains a strong footprint in the economy with a private sector underdeveloped and hampered by weaknesses in the rule of law, in particular corruption and judicial inefficiency, and in the enforcement of fair competition. Serbia is moderately prepared and has made some progress in coping with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU, the report said.

“On good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation, Serbia remained committed overall to maintaining good bilateral relations with other candidate countries, potential candidates and neighbouring EU Member States. Relations with Croatia improved. Relations with Hungary have further intensified. In general, Serbia actively participates in regional cooperation,” the progress report said.

“Overall, Serbia has remained engaged in the EU-facilitated Dialogue on the normalisation of relations with Kosovo, but it needs to demonstrate more serious commitment, invest more efforts and make compromises to take the process of normalisation of relations with Kosovo forward. Serbia needs to uphold its Dialogue commitments and commit to the full implementation of all past Dialogue agreements and the Agreement on the Path to Normalisation and its Implementation Annex. Serbia and Kosovo are expected to engage more constructively to enable negotiations on the comprehensive legally binding normalisation Agreement to start and show flexibility in order to make rapid and concrete progress. Normalisation of relations is an essential condition on the European path of both Parties and both risk losing important opportunities in the absence of progress,” the report said. It added that Belgrade is expected to fully cooperate in apprehending the perpetrators behind the Banjska armed incident.

“Regarding Serbia’s ability to assume the obligations of EU membership, the country continued the work on alignment with the EU acquis in several areas,” it said and listed the internal market cluster, competitiveness and inclusive growth cluster, Green agenda and sustainable connectivity cluster, the cluster on resources, agriculture and cohesion. “On the external relations cluster, Serbia is yet to finalise its accession to the World Trade Organisation which is one of the opening benchmarks for Chapter 30.

Serbia should also abstain from introducing unilateral trade-restrictive measures without prior consultation of the Commission, in line with its obligations under the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. Serbia continued not to align with EU restrictive measures against Russia and the majority of declarations by the High Representative on behalf of the EU on this matter,” the report said.

“Serbia contributed to the management of the mixed migration flows towards the EU and cooperated with the EU, EU Member States and its neighbours to implement the EU Action Plan on the Western Balkans presented by the Commission in December 2022. Additional progress along all the pillars of the Action Plan is expected,” it said.

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