Will the adoption of constitutional changes speed up the process of Serbia’s integration into the EU?

On January 16, the citizens of Serbia voted “yes” in the referendum on the amendment of the Constitution relating to the judicial system. Confirmation of the proposed changes means that in the coming period, judges and prosecutors will be elected by expert bodies, and not by the National Assembly as before. According to the Serbian authorities, this will lead to the independence of the judiciary from political influence.

Although the debate intensified in the last days before the referendum, on the eve of elections announced for April 3, the referendum was “under the radar” of the majority in power but also of the opposition parties. There was virtually no campaigning and most of the media coverage was short and formal. The constitutional changes have divided pundits and politicians, not citizens, who themselves have claimed to be misinformed about what was voted in the referendum.

During the lukewarm campaign, government officials sometimes warned that a failed referendum would mean the end of Serbia’s European path. Five civil society organizations focusing on European integration, on the other hand, considered that this attitude is a deception of the public already insufficiently informed about the changes of the Constitution.

“This creates the impression that Serbia’s commitment to EU membership necessarily requires an affirmative vote in the referendum, and that amending the Constitution is the only step on which further European integration depends. from Serbia. Since these types of messages are incorrect, we believe it is very dangerous to mislead the public, who are not sufficiently informed about the changes to the Constitution that are subject to referendum,” the CSOs said.

Srđan Majstorovic, chairman of the board of directors of the European Policy Center (CEP) and member of the Balkan Policy Advisory Group in Europe (BiEPAG) declares for European Western Balkans that changes to the highest legal act of the state must reflect the broadest compromise of all relevant political actors, professional associations, academia and civil society, which has not been the case in this process.

“The absence of a broader social consensus on such an important issue indicates how far we are from achieving the goal. This situation is caused by the lack of political will to present the need for change and the importance of the independence of the judiciary to the citizens in an understandable way and within a reasonable time,” Majstorović points out.

He assesses that the supporters of the changes, after several years of delay, wanted to adopt amendments to the Constitution before the end of the shortened mandate of the National Assembly, the legitimacy of which is questionable, because there is no opposition in this mandate.

“It is a shadow that will follow these changes and will remind of the divisions that have become the hallmark of this regime and its mode of government,” Majstorović said, adding that the adoption of the constitutional amendment was a formal step. in the right direction, which does not mean that the independence of the judiciary will be guaranteed overnight.

According to him, the amendment of the Constitution represents the formal fulfillment of one of the fifty provisional benchmarks of the Action Plan of Chapter 23, which deals with issues of justice, the fight against corruption and fundamental rights.

Majstorović believes that it is unrealistic to expect this step to speed up Serbia’s EU accession process, without questioning the importance of this formal step in the accession process.

“Whether the changes to the Constitution will prove to be an important step, especially for the citizens of Serbia, and for European integration, will depend on how the will of the political actors is articulated after the elections in April and their ability to secure a broad social consensus on the judicial set of laws, which will implement the mentioned changes in practice,” says Majstorović.

He points out that Serbia is still at the beginning of a long journey of judicial reform and establishing a different political environment that will unequivocally support and continuously fight for the independence of the judiciary.

“It is obvious that the Serbian authorities must overemphasize this step and thus give the impression that ‘our part of the job has been done’. Such attitudes seem to create an alibi to reimpose exclusive responsibility on the EU due to a possible stalemate in the negotiations in 2022. The stalemate will be due to the holding of elections in both Serbia and France, which presides currently the EU,” says Majstorović for EWB.

It recalls that, as before, the EU will continue to focus primarily on results in the area of ​​the functioning of democratic institutions, the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organized crime, freedom of the media and fundamental human rights, as well as the continuation of the dialogue with Pristina.

“The most important topic for Serbia in 2022 will be the conditions under which the elections will take place in April. The implementation of the measures resulting from the cross-party dialogue with the mediation of representatives of the European Parliament, as well as the late implementation of the ODIHR recommendations, will certainly be one of the criteria that will affect the assessment of the will of the Serbian authorities to ensure free and fair elections. The dynamics of negotiations with the EU will be influenced by events in the post-election period, ie. the period necessary for the formation of the new government, the appointment of the supervising ministers and the members of the negotiating structure”, assess the members of the BiEPAG.

Majstorović does not rule out the possibility that Serbia will be required to cooperate in order to solve structural problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina, taking into account the interests of the EU and the United States in the situation in BiH.

About Michael G. Walter

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