The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and Serbia held the 10th meeting of their Civil Society Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) in Brussels on 10 March, adopting a joint declaration by majority on 31 March. JCC members called on the EU institutions to take better account of civil society's role and to strengthen its involvement in monitoring Serbia's accession process and holding authorities to account.
JCC members discussed the effects on people's quality of life of economic and industrial reforms, including the future Green Agenda for the Western Balkans and the future economic development and investment plan to be presented in May. They also talked about the situation with civil society and the rule of law in Serbia.
One of the main items on the agenda of the 10th JCC meeting was the state of play with EU-Serbia relations and the accession process. In a joint declaration, adopted by a majority, participants welcomed progress made in the negotiations, with 18 chapters opened and two of these provisionally completed. They called on the Serbian authorities to step up their efforts to meet the benchmarks set for opening and closing of the chapters, especially in relation to the rule of law and political criteria.
Participants also called on the EU institutions "to continue to be supportive of the EU enlargement policy and to implement coherently the Commission's proposals for strengthening the accession process for the Western Balkans". They particularly welcomed the Communication on Enhancing the accession process – A credible EU Perspective for the Western Balkans, published by the European Commission on 5 February 2020, which sets the objective of optimising the accession process based on a revised methodology.
More specifically, the JCC called on the European Parliament, the European Commission, and also the Council "to better take into account the importance of civil society in both the current and the revised accession methodology for the Western Balkans, and strengthen its role in monitoring the accession process and keeping authorities accountable for their action, ultimately paving the way for a more democratic environment based on the core European values, especially rule of law".
Zoran Stojiljković, president of the Serbian trade union Nezavisnost, presented a report on the Impact of the economic reforms on the quality of life of the citizens of Serbia. According to the report,
the economic and social situation would be much better if civil society was involved; we need a social and economic contract in Serbia.
This view was shared by Alexandrina Najmowicz, director of the European Civic Forum, who mentioned the Conference on the Future of Europe as an opportunity to involve civil society in the accession process. Although the European Parliament has ruled out formal attendance of civil society representatives, Ms Najmowicz insisted on the need to provide a framework for their participation.
Economic reforms and quality of life of Serbian citizens
Members of the JCC noted the encouraging trends in some of the recent economic data: Serbia's GDP had increased by 4%, its inflation rate had declined, overall industrial production had increased by 0.3% in 2019, and the country was attracting 37.3% more foreign direct investment. But they were concerned by data from the European Union Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) for 2018 showing the risk-of-poverty rate in Serbia at 24.3%, which places the country at the highest risk level compared to the EU Member States.
In view of this, the JCC called for "inequality and poverty reduction, as profit share is still on the capital side, which implies creation of new tax and social policies". In the same vein, the JCC recommended that Serbian authorities take "the necessary measures to ensure decent work conditions for their citizens in a healthy, corruption-free business environment, and a higher employment protection level (EPL) in order to address the key challenges of the Serbian labour market, the biggest one being the ongoing trend of brain drain and labour emigration".
Another important issue addressed by the JCC was the environmental strategy. Members encouraged the Serbian authorities, in line with the recommendations from the Serbian Ombudsman, "to take urgent measures to tackle the problem of excessive air pollution which has been affecting a large number of Serbian cities and municipalities, but also water and soil pollution, and reflect on long-term measures to be undertaken to better citizens' lives by resolving major pollution causes".
More broadly, the JCC pointed to the need for Serbia "to align its energy policy with the EU acquis, as well as important European policies such as the Green Deal".
Ingrid Sager, policy officer for Serbia at DG NEAR in the European Commission, presented the potential benefits of the Green Deal for the citizens of the Western Balkans. The European Commission had decided to allocate 25% of the EU's external financial investment to climate change projects, focusing on decarbonisation, the circular economy, biodiversity, pollution, and agri-food measures.
This is an opportunity for Serbia, but it needs political will and funding, as well as full involvement of civil society, Ms Sager said.
Rule of law and civic space
As at previous JCC meetings, participants expressed their concern about the situation with the rule of law and fundamental rights in Serbia. The last two Serbia reports issued by the European Commission had noted the lack of progress in relation to freedom of expression as a matter of "serious concern", and Freedom House had demoted Serbia's status from a "free" to a "partly free" country, citing the conduct of elections, media repression, and the president's accumulation of executive powers. In addition, Serbia had dropped 36 ranks in the Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index list since 2014.
For all these reasons, JCC members noted: "The rule of law and freedom of expression are central values on which the EU is founded, at the heart of both the Enlargement Process and the Stabilisation and Association Process. Progress on the subject is essential and should determine the pace of the overall accession negotiations".
They joint declaration also reiterated the urgent call for "full respect of the independence of judiciary and other institutions that are responsible for maintaining the rule of law, fighting corruption and respecting fundamental rights". Participants regretted that the Serbian authorities had passed an unjustified number of laws by urgent procedure or had opted for a change in the threshold in the electoral system three months before the elections, going against the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the Council of Europe's Venice Commission. No major changes should be made to the election rules during an election year.
Danijel Apostolović, deputising for the head of Serbia's mission to the EU, Ana Hrustanović, who could not attend the meeting, said that Serbian authorities were taking
all the necessary measures to ensure the transparency and the credibility of the general elections that will take place on 26 April, as well as gender parity.
Members of the JCC concluded their joint declaration by pointing out that "one of the most important obligations of a candidate country concerns an enabling environment for Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to participate in the necessary reforms, not only in processes related to negotiations but also in all decision-making processes at all levels of government".
They reiterated their recommendations regarding the need to adopt a national strategy for an enabling environment for CSOs, together with an accompanying action plan, and noted the European Commission's assessment in Serbia's 2019 Report that "no progress was made towards establishing an enabling environment for the development and financing of civil society and that further efforts are needed to ensure systematic cooperation between the government and civil society".
The EU-Serbia Civil Society Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) is one of the bodies set up within the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Union and Serbia. The JCC enables CSOs from both sides to monitor Serbia's progress towards the European Union, and to adopt recommendations for the attention of the government of Serbia and the EU institutions. The JCC is made up of 18 members, nine from each side, representing the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and Serbian civil society. During its current term, the JCC is co-chaired by Ana Milićević-Pezelj, member of the EESC and Executive Secretary of the Union of Autonomous Trade Unions of Croatia (SSSH), and Boško Savković, Secretary General of the Serbian Association of Employers.