By Sasa Dragojlo
The EU has announced that Serbia will open its first two chapters in its membership negotiations on Monday and Tuesday in Brussels.
The news represents a major step forward towards eventual membership but major challenges lie ahead, experts said.
“The opening of chapters is important because it will allow a higher degree of control over the government’s actions in implementing reforms… As we can see, the rule of law and human rights remain our biggest problem,” Dragan Popovic, director of the Policy Centre, told BIRN.
The chapters opening this week are 35, on normalisation of relations with the former province of Kosovo, and 32, addressing financial control.
The Commissioner for Enlargement, Johannes Hahn, said on his visit to Belgrade last Thursday that opening the first chapters would show that joining the EU is not just an idea for Serbia but “a concrete and achievable goal”.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said that Monday was a big day for the country.
“December 14 is an important day. After opening the first chapters, we will show what kind of society we want to belong to and what we want to build in our country,” Vucic said last Thursday.
Serbia will likely open Chapters 23 and 24, relating to the judiciary and fundamental rights and freedoms, early in 2016, according to Hahn.
Nemanja Nenadic, from the watchdog organisation Transparency Serbia, told BIRN that these two chapters are the most important since they represent the essence of the EU’s values and are a precondition for other reforms.
But he warned that most of the standards in Chapter 23 and 24 would be difficult to measure because they are not as comprehensively defined as those in some other chapters.
“It is a double-edged sword because it is hard to measure them… it is more on the level of principles,” Nenadic said.
The latest European Commission progress report on Serbia, released in November, said that Serbia had made progress in most areas, especially in relations with Kosovo.
But it stressed than more needs to be done in terms of fighting corruption, curbing political influence over the judiciary and ensuring media freedom and freedom of expression.
The European Council granted Serbia membership candidate status on March 1, 2012.
The first intergovernmental conference between Serbia and the EU was held in January 2014 in Brussels, marking the start of accession negotiations at a political level.