Civil society representatives from both Serbia and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) asked the EU institutions to monitor more effectively the reforms in the area of the rule of law in Serbia and other EU candidate countries in a joint declaration issued as an outcome of the 8th meeting of the EU-Serbia Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) that took place in Brussels on 27 February.
In their joint declaration, JCC members acknowledged that Romanian Presidency of the Council of the EU kept the integration of the Western Balkans countries high on its list of priorities and also noted with satisfaction that the upcoming Croatian Presidency plans to hold an EU-Western Balkans summit in the first half of 2020. Nevertheless, they called upon EU institutions to monitor more effectively the reforms in the area of the rule of law in Serbia and other EU candidate countries by commissioning an independent analysis of "mechanisms that endanger democracy and lead to capturing public institutions for political purposes".
Concerning Serbia's accession to the EU, JCC members expressed their deep concern after the Freedom House Report 2019 lowered Serbia's status from 'free' to 'partly free' due to the "deterioration in the conduct of elections, continued attempts by the government and allied media outlets to undermine the independent journalists through legal harassment and smear campaigns". In the very same vein, in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters without Borders Serbia fell 10 places compared to 2017 because of the attacks on journalists that were not investigated, solved or punished.
The JCC requested from Serbian authorities full respect of the independence of the judiciary and other institutions that are responsible for maintaining the rule of law, fighting corruption, respecting fundamental rights and providing access to information of public importance, and expressed concern with limitations in public dialogue and oversight of the executive by the Serbian Parliament. As Duško Vuković, representative of the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia, stated: "If Serbia wants to become part of the European family, we need to have a real dialogue and not monologues, so these practices must come to an end".
Economy, digitalisation and public administration
The JCC welcomed the fact that economic growth in Serbia is strong (about 4 %) and unemployment rate keeps falling, but it invited Serbian authorities to focus on the creation of employment and quality jobs and the reduction of poverty and inequalities that are still considerably high in the country.
In its joint declaration, the JCC welcomed the establishment of the Digital Europe Programme as a way to make Europe a leading player in digitalisation and increase its economic strength and competitiveness on the global stage, as well as the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans. This initiative calls for investment in broadband connectivity, cybersecurity and digital economy, as well as for a gradual reduction of roaming charges between the EU and the Western Balkans and within the Western Balkans. As stated by Dejana Kuzmić, Serbian member of the EU-Serbia JCC who presented a report on Digitalisation as a Tool for Social and Economic Development, "level of connectivity is still poor in Serbia, and many features of new technologies are not available, and we must solve this issue if we want to be competitive".
The JCC stressed that citizens and companies are the real drivers of digital development and it recommended that – in order to be able to fully use the potential of digitalisation as a tool for economic growth and social development – the Serbian government steps up its efforts in the area of digital education and training. It also recommended to prioritise the inclusion into the digitalised economy of underprivileged groups, and highlighted, in order to alleviate the negative consequences of digitalisation, the role of the social partners and other civil society organisations in digital transformation. The JCC asked the Serbian government to ensure further depoliticisation of the state administration, especially with regards to the hiring of new staff, and to introduce mechanisms for regular public consultations with civil society organisations on strategic documents.
The civil society JCC is one of the bodies set up within the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Union and Serbia. It enables civil society organisations from both sides to monitor Serbia's progress towards EU membership and to adopt recommendations for the attention of the government of Serbia and the EU institutions. At its last meeting, members discussed the current state of play of Serbia's accession negotiations, the situation of civil society, digitalisation as a tool for social and economic development, and assessed the participation of CSOs in public administration reform in Serbia.