'Serbia needs to align further with the EU', Commissioner Várhelyi tells Vučić in Belgrade

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić welcomes the EU’s Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi to Belgrade
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić welcomes the EU’s Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi to Belgrade Copyright Screenshot from AP video 4494061
Copyright Screenshot from AP video 4494061
By Euronews with AP, EBU
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Serbia applied for EU membership in 2009 and was accepted as a candidate country in 2012, but little progress has been made since then, with the Belgrade government accused of democratic backsliding.

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Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has welcomed the EU's enlargement commissioner on his visit to Belgrade on Monday for talks about the country's future membership.

European Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said he hoped the next commission would see Serbia joining the bloc while pointing out that Serbia needs to continue with democratic reforms and align its foreign policy more closely with that of the EU.

"It is clear that we need the democratic reforms to go ahead," Varhelyi said.

"One cannot forget about the need to align further with the EU foreign policy, this is again something that we have discussed and where we need Serbia to move along and to adjust its foreign policy more and more to EU foreign policy."

EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi on talks in Belgrade

Vučić said he believed Serbia's efforts to join the union would not be hampered, but he remained vague on actual policy shifts.

"I am not sure that it is possible to predict many years ahead but we will prepare to be closer (with negotiations) and I hope that if what Oliver Varhelyi rightly reproached us for, which is our non-compliance with their foreign policy, will not be a hindrance," he said.

Serbia applied for EU membership in 2009 and was accepted as an official candidate country in 2012, but since then, little progress has been made towards joining the bloc with Vučić's Serbia, a country he has led since 2017, often accused of sliding towards authoritarianism.

Democratic backsliding?

The country was rocked by weekly protests last year following two mass shootings in May, which left 18 people, including nine schoolchildren, dead. Initially demanding tougher gun control laws, the rallies soon morphed into anti-government protests.

Protesters were angry about democratic backsliding under the Vučić government, accusing it of increasing authoritarianism, corruption and having links to organised crime.

The most recent Freedom House report ranks Serbia's political rights score at 18 out of a possible 40, placing it among the partly free, hybrid regimes category, with a downward tendency towards authoritarianism.

Civil society representatives in the country have repeatedly said they felt betrayed by their government and Brussels for failing to move the EU membership process forward and accused Vučić of fuelling hate, intolerance and violence in the country, claims he denied.

There are concerns in Brussels about Vučić's close relations with authoritarian leaders like Chinese President Xi Jinping
There are concerns in Brussels about Vučić's close relations with authoritarian leaders like Chinese President Xi JinpingDarko Vojinovic/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

Some of Vučić's political decisions have raised eyebrows in Brussels, such as Belgrade's refusal to join in with EU sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

Vučić has for years claimed to follow a "neutral" policy, balancing ties with Moscow, Beijing, Brussels and Washington. But in an interview with the Russian news agency Tass, Vučić summed up relations between Belgrade and Moscow as "a true friend is recognised in moments of difficulty", adding that he would continue to resist slapping sanctions on Russia for "as long as possible".

Serbia has also purchased Russian gas on favourable terms and added Russian hardware to its military arsenal.

Earlier this year, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for the suspension of EU funding to Serbia if national authorities fail to implement its electoral recommendations and if it's revealed that Serbian authorities committed electoral fraud. That move came following accusations of serious irregularities in the Belgrade local elections.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on the Serbia-Kosovo relationship

Another issue is Kosovo. In April, EU foreign affairs ministers met in Luxemburg and agreed to amend Chapter 35, a key part of the negotiations portfolio concerning Serbia's negotiations to join the EU. The change means Brussels would freeze Serbia's accession process into the bloc if it didn't implement an agreement on normalising its relationship with its former province.

The main condition for Serbia to comply with is that it must stop obstructing Kosovo's efforts to join key international organisations, such as the UN, the Council of Europe and NATO.

However, Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo ever since it declared independence in 2008. Now, Serbia fears that accepting Kosovo's membership in these institutions will implicitly recognise its statehood, a red line Belgrade is not willing to cross.

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Despite these issues, Varhelyi remained optimistic.

"It is clear for me that the next commission will have to be an enlargement commission. The next commission will have to put all of its work and effort to get the new members into the European Union," he said.

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