The negotiations began on 21 January 2014. Prior to this, Catherine Ashton, the then EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, confirmed that Serbia had implemented the essential parts of the normalisation agreement with Kosovo that was reached in April 2013. Progress in the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo will significantly impact the pace of accession negotiations, in addition to progress in rule of law chapters (chapters 23 and 24).
Milestones in relations between Serbia and the European Union
Like all countries of the Western Balkans, Serbia was accorded potential candidate country status at the Feira European Council in June 2000. The Council confirmed the European prospects of the Western Balkan countries in its Thessaloniki Agenda of June 2003, which also emphasised that economic and political reforms were prerequisites for progress on moving closer to the EU. The Western Balkans’ prospect of EU accession was reaffirmed at the summits in Sofia in 2018 and in Zagreb in 2020.
The Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) signed in April 2008 provides the framework for Serbia’s moves towards the EU and entered into force on 1 September 2013, following ratification by all EU member states. Furthermore, a visa facilitation agreement entered into force in December 2009, under which citizens of Serbia may enter the Schengen area for tourist purposes without needing a visa.
From application for EU membership to the formal launch of accession negotiations
On 22 December 2009, Serbia officially submitted its application for membership of the European Union. On 12 October 2011, the European Commission recommended in its statement on Serbia’s application for accession that Serbia be granted candidate country status, provided that Serbia’s dialogue with Kosovo continued and all previous agreements with Kosovo were fully implemented.
The European Council granted Serbia candidate country status on 1 March 2012. In December 2012, the General Affairs Council confirmed that the conditions for opening accession negotiations with Serbia were fulfilled, including, in particular, a tangible and sustained improvement of relations with Kosovo.
The European Council followed this recommendation, and on 28 June 2013 decided to launch accession negotiations with Serbia. The negotiating framework for Serbia focuses on the chapter on the normalisation process with Kosovo (Chapter 35), as well as the chapters dealing with the rule of law (Chapters 23 and 24). Progress in these areas will to a large extent determine the speed of accession negotiations.
In order to meet the political and economic criteria for accession to the European Union, Serbia must make further progress on reforming its domestic policy. The European Commission’s Progress Report of 16 October 2013 lists several priorities, including reform of the judiciary and administrative structures, the fight against corruption and organised crime, as well as the protection of minorities. These priorities are in keeping with the new approach to negotiating already being used by the European Union in its accession negotiations with Montenegro.
The first negotiating chapters to be opened on 14 December 2015 were those on financial control (Chapter 32) and on normalisation of relations with Kosovo (Chapter 35). This was possible thanks to progress made on normalisation. Following Serbian moves towards reform, Chapters 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights) and 24 (justice, freedom and security), which are priorities, were opened in July 2016. A total of 18 chapters have been open since the accession conference on 10 December 2019.
Normalisation process between Serbia and Kosovo
Serbia and Kosovo have been engaged in dialogue under the auspices of the EU in Brussels since March 2011. The aim is to normalise relations between the two countries in all fields. Only when relations between Serbia and Kosovo are finally clarified will the two countries be able to accede to the EU in the future. It is anchored in the EU negotiating position that a lack of progress in the dialogue on normalisation has a negative impact on Serbia’s general progress in the accession negotiations with the European Union.
Successes have already been achieved in the EU-mediated dialogue, which will improve quality of life on the ground, including with respect to the free movement of persons, recognition of higher education qualifications, civil and land registers, the free movement of goods and the representation of Kosovo in regional organisations. Within the framework of this dialogue, the parties have also reached agreements on matters such as implementing integrated border management and assigning liaison officers to each other’s capitals.
In October 2012, negotiations between the Prime Ministers began on overarching political issues. The Presidents have also engaged in this dialogue since 2017. April 2013 saw the first agreement on normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo, a major step towards establishing good-neighbourly relations. The agreement primarily regulates the transformation of the parallel Serbian structures in the administration, justice system and police into Kosovar institutions. In return, the Kosovo Serbs are granted guaranteed representation in the field of the police and the judiciary and are to be able to exercise the self-administration rights guaranteed in the Kosovar constitution within the context of a federation of majority Kosovo Serbian communities. In 2015, the Prime Ministers of Serbia and Kosovo signed four declarations on normalising relations between Pristina and Belgrade in the fields of energy, telecommunications, the establishment of an association of those communities with a Serbian majority as well as Mitrovica Bridge and freedom of movement. Moreover, in February 2015 agreements on the judicial system and in June 2015 on vehicle insurance were signed.
Negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo were temporarily suspended in November 2018 due to political tensions between the two countries. In July 2020, negotiations were resumed following Miroslav Lajčák’s appointment as EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other regional issues. As reaffirmed in his mandate, the aim of the dialogue is to normalise relations in all spheres in the form of a final and legally binding agreement that is in line with international law and promotes regional stability.
EU support for Serbia on the path to accession
Serbia receives financial support from the EU through IPA II (Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance). Around 1.5 billion euros has been earmarked for the 2014-2020 period, of which about 1.2 billion euros was pledged by the end of 2019. IPA support is especially focused on strengthening democracy and the rule of law, administration capacity building, institution building, moves towards European standards, the investment climate, the labour market and transport policy (connectivity). The measures financed from IPA funds are described in detail in the Indicative Strategy Paper for Serbia for the period 2014-2020 published on 10 August 2018.
Furthermore, the EU is supporting the Western Balkan states with an EU COVID-19 support package to the tune of up to 3.3 billion euros to help them overcome the socio-economic impact of the crisis. On 6 October, the European Commission presented an Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans providing support of up to 9 billion euros