Rule of law and human rights in Serbia: Interview with Nicolas Bizel (EU Delegation)

In July 2016, at the meeting of EU foreign ministers, the EU officially opened the negotiations about chapters 23 and 24 with Serbia, covering judiciary, fundamental rights, justice, freedom and security. The opening of the two chapters was an important moment for Serbia, as reflected in the statement of Johannes Hahn: “It is recognition for Serbia and the progress the country had made. Serbia, its administration and the society, have done a lot of work on this, thereby demonstrating that they have undertaken to carry out credible reforms towards the modernization of the country and for the overall good of the citizens. The process has the power to transform and change whole society. “

A few months following the opening of chapters 23 and 24, Nicolas Bizel, Head of Operations, Section I – Justice, Home Affairs & Support to Civil Society at the EU Delegation in Serbia, has kindly agreed to give an interview for Serbian Monitor, share his expertise, and shed light on how well is Serbia doing in the process of transformation of its society, which is supposed to parallel the process of European integration.

Your work covers chapters 23 and 24 of the accession negotiation which are considered to be the most difficult chapters, dedicated to judiciary, human rights, justice, freedom and security. How difficult it is to deal with such broad and challenging areas in Serbia?

Chapters 23 and 24 are indeed of a particular importance in the framework of the EU accession negotiations. These two chapters (among 35 chapters of negotiations) are fundamental as they allow the EU Member States to assess that the Candidates meet one of the key criteria for accession, mainly that the countries have stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.

In that context, they cover many areas: Chapter 23 deals with the functioning of the judiciary system, the fight against corruption, the respect of fundamental rights (freedom of thought, conscience and religion; prohibition of torture, degrading and ill-treatment and punishment, freedom of expression, including freedom and pluralism of media, principle of non-discrimination and position of socially vulnerable groups, gender equality, rights of the child, position of national minorities, position of refugees and internally displaced persons, measures against racism and xenophobia, personal data protection). Chapter 24 deals migration and asylum, visa policy, external borders and Schengen, judicial cooperation in civil, commercial and criminal matters, police cooperation, fight against organized crime, fight against terrorism and drugs.

In view of their fundamental importance, the Commission is therefore addressing these two negotiations chapters at an early stage in all negotiations. And they are the last chapters to be closed as they require a long set of changes in different areas. There is a need of a continuous assessment of the reforms undertaken by the candidate country.

Reforming a country towards the full respect of Rule of Law requires time, patience and commitment from all the parties involved. Without the political willingness, the results won’t be achieved. It is therefore indispensable to continuously have the commitment at the highest level. It requires also the trust of the people as the process of reforms in the area of rule of law takes time and results cannot be obvious in the short term. That is the reason why the main difficulty is in the commitment and recognition from the people that reforms are ongoing and positive results will come.

The EU, besides providing advice and policy support through accession negotiations and the monitoring of the implementation of the action plans related to Chapters 23 and 24, also provides considerable funding to accession countries such as Serbia, through the Pre-accession funds (IPA). The funding is there to help the institutions implement policies and strategies, and build their capacities to implement standards set in the EU member states. The funding also supports civil society and the media, which are key actors in the area of rule of law. The EU Delegation in Serbia has a strong rule of law portfolio of projects which tackle these issues, and which should help Serbia achieve all the steps agreed to as part of the Chapter 23 and 24.

In which areas has the most progress been achieved and why?

Regarding Rule of Law, the fact that EU has agreed on opening negotiation chapters on 23 and 24 shows that Serbia has provided credible action plans of reforms in these areas and committed itself to achieve these reforms within a defined calendar. In the area of Justice, some improvement has been made in the last year by further promoting a merit-based recruitment system and by pursuing the national programme to reduce the backlog of court cases. Some steps were also taken to harmonise jurisprudence. However, a lot still needs to be done as judicial independence is not yet assured in practice. In the area of Home Affairs, some progress has also been made in adopting in 2016 a new police law, reorganising the Ministry of Interior and in adopting the first serious and organised crime threat assessment (SOCTA) using Europol methodology. However, the number of final convictions remains low and independent and transparent oversight of the police is not yet in place.

Apart from Rule of Law, the European Commission 2016 report for Serbia highlights the good progress made to address some of the policy weaknesses, in particular with regard to the budget deficit. Growth prospects have improved and domestic and external imbalances were reduced. Price stability has been preserved. The restructuring of publicly-owned enterprises has advanced. Even if Serbia is still moderately prepared to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union, some progress was made concerning support to SMEs and entrepreneurship and Public and private investments increased. Good progress was made on aligning with the acquis on road, rail and inland waterways, notably on social legislation for commercial road transport, opening of the rail market, mercantile shipping and transport accident investigation.

In regard to the EU integration, is mere alignment with acquis communautaire sufficient, bearing in mind that Serbia has a myriad of laws, strategies and other documents adopted but not implemented? How can this be overcome? Does the EU have monitoring mechanisms to evaluate the level of implementation of these documents, as well as the quality of the reforms?

European Commission and Member States do not only look at the pure alignment of the Serbian legislation with the EU acquis, but they also look at the implementation. On this matter, many mechanisms are in place to assess the reforms engaged by a candidate country. Some benchmarks requirements are set. This gives the candidate additional guidance as it assumes the responsibilities of membership, as well as an assurance to current members that the candidate is meeting the conditions for joining.

The European Commission uses many tools to continuously assess efforts made by countries wishing to join and reports once a year through its annual reports. The EC also uses peer-review missions to take stock on the ground – with the support of Member States’ experts – what the effects of various measures are.

But in parallel to that, EU promotes the monitoring of progress towards standards by independent bodies and civil society.

For example, when it comes to Chapter 23 and 24, civil society organizations were involved in making presentations on alignment of the legal system of the Republic of Serbia with the acquis. All civil society organizations were invited to take part in the negotiation process. The Negotiating Group for Chapter 23 shall continue to use civil society organisations during the process of implementation of the Action plan. This mechanism will be implemented through an announcement of a public call, in cooperation with the Serbian Office for cooperation with civil society, for submission of proposals and comments in connection to implementation of the activities envisaged in the Action plan. Those reports shall also be enclosed to periodical reports on implementation of the Action plan, submitted to the bodies in charge of monitoring the implementation, and subsequently shall be taken into consideration and implemented in the process of updating the Action plan.

Official opening of the twinning project financed by the EU on the fight against organized crime (human trafficking, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, financial investigations), with representatives of the Serbian Ministry of Interior, and the representatives of Germany, France and Slovenia as twinning partner.

To what extent is the EU integration process a mentality altering process?

Once being in the European Union, then a Member State is committed to pursue common objectives and goals. It has to accept the rule of negotiation and of decisions built on compromise solutions among sovereign and democratic countries. The Member State has to accept to be criticized or even to be reprimanded if it does not follow what it has committed to achieve by becoming part of the EU. This is not easy to accept when you are a sovereign State and when you agreed to share your sovereignty to achieve common goals. So, the first mentality changing process resides in the change at the political level. Leaders of a country who are, or who will be, in charge need to understand that some decisions are taken collectively for the benefit of the EU ; as a consequence, a decision taken by an individual government can have an impact for all the Member States. The politicians and Heads of States need therefore to think already now not only at national level, but also at the European level, which give them an increased responsibility that they have to take into account. Politicians of a candidate country have therefore to already integrate this change in the decision process.

Furthermore, willing to be part of the European Union does not only mean being part of a single market and to a common decision’s environment. It means also to adhere to common values that are clearly stated in the EU Treaty in its article 2: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” In assessing under chapters 23 and 24 the path towards the respect of these values, the EU directly influences a change in the mentality of the people. But of course, this is a long process that requires time and reforms. So, the population might not see on the short term the effects of the efforts made by the candidate country to fully respect rule of law. This requires hard work, close follow up and real commitment from all parties involved.

But already, we can see some changes in mentalities. For example, the first Gay Pride in Belgrade ended up with acts of violence against the demonstrators. Last year and the year before, the demonstration went peacefully. This is one example of a first step and progressive change in the mentality that is also influenced by the demands from EU to respect any minorities.

What about tackling structural problems, such as widely rooted corruption, from grand to petty, from systemic to individual corruption? How likely is the resolution of this problem?

Corruption remains a serious problem in Serbia. While the country has a good institutional and legislative framework, implementation of laws has been a key problem. The political will is there, including in the message of “zero tolerance” against corruption, which has been repeated by the Government. However, dealing with a protracted and systemic problem like corruption takes time and much effort. We have not yet been able to solve this fully in the EU, where according to the EU Barometer one in three citizens claim that institutions are corrupted.  A key problem with corruption is that it is a difficult crime to detect and process in a court of law – there are not classical victims, for example, and many times both the bribe-give and the bribe-taker are in agreement over their illicit transaction, since it brings benefits to both. However, the real victim is society, and especially the poorest and most vulnerable groups: if access to goods and benefits depends on bribery or trade of influence, basic human equality and dignity are put to the test. This is why it is so important to put in place robust mechanisms to fight corruption. In Serbia, this means strengthening the institutions which should protect against it, and in particular the judiciary, which is the main line of defence against this type of crime. 

An independent judiciary can ensure that the abuse often happening on government levels is properly investigated and punished, and this is why independence and transparency of the judiciary remain our key concerns under the Chapter 23.  Serbia has a second problem, common to many countries which have transitioned from state to a market economy – the privatisation of state owned enterprises and the management of the enterprises which remain public or state owned is not transparent, and accountability remains low. A number of high corruption cases linked to these issues have been reported by advisory bodies (the famous “24 privatisation cases,” for example, which were also reported by the European parliament). These cases require thorough investigation, since their repercussions on the economic climate, investment potential and trust in public institutions is very high.

We have made these points clear in the EC’s Annual Report on Serbia, where we asked last year for four concrete steps to be taken, which should help bring the levels of corruption down. These steps include both the prevention of corruption and the enforcement of anti-corruption legislation. On the prevention side, we recommended to Serbia that it should continue strengthening independent control bodies such as the Anticorruption Agency, which tracks, monitors and checks against corruption at its source, and to implement its adopted policies and strategies in this field, since they are up to EU standards, but require consistent funding and political support. On the enforcement side, we asked Serbia to make better links between the work of the police, prosecution and courts and to ensure that cases are processed, and especially high corruption cases. The proper processing of these cases is important, since besides the issue of rule of law, it also sends strong signals that the country indeed has a “zero tolerance” approach to corruption.

The cars that the EU donated to the Serbian Border Police with the view of increasing Serbia’s capacity for better control of state borders.

What are the most critical issues undermining social inclusion in Serbia? Do vulnerable groups participate in policy making process in a sufficient manner? What are the examples of successful empowerment of vulnerable groups in Serbia?

The EC 2016 report clearly stresses the main weaknesses regarding social inclusion in Serbia. The survey on income and living conditions that was conducted in 2015 shows that the at-risk-of-poverty rate in Serbia decreased slightly to 25.4 % with the highest rates among young people aged 18-24 and those under 18, unemployed persons, and households with two adults and three or more dependent children. The current system of social benefits does not effectively help to reduce poverty. The pension system continues to show a high deficit. The ratio of insured persons to pensioners is low and undermines the long-term sustainability of the system.

Social housing project “Let’s build a home together (Bellville 1)”, Obrenovac, opened in May 2016.

The system of social services, including those for elderly and socially disadvantaged persons, is still largely institutionalised. The findings of the ongoing mapping exercise of social services at the local level undertaken by the Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit (SIPRU) in cooperation with the Republic Institute for Social Protection should contribute to developing non-institutional forms of care, developing a range of service providers and integrated social services, and improving service accessibility, efficiency and quality.

Activities to promote equality and ensure integration of persons belonging to the most discriminated groups (Roma, LGBTI, persons with disabilities, persons with HIV/AIDS and other socially vulnerable groups) need to be effectively carried out.

Roma, LGBTI persons, persons with disabilities and persons with HIV/AIDS remain the groups most discriminated against. For example, Roma continue to face difficult living conditions and face discrimination in access to social protection, health, employment and adequate housing. Most Roma, especially those living in informal settlements, lack adequate access to fresh water and electricity. Problems with forced evictions continued. Serbia has yet to develop guidelines on evictions in line with international standards, and to train local and national institutions on procedures to be followed before, during and after evictions. School drop-out rates for Roma children remain high and they remain over-represented in care institutions. Roma women and children are frequently subjected to violence in the family, which often remains unreported.

Organisations defending and representing discriminated groups need to be reinforced. This however concerns civil society in general in Serbia, where further efforts are needed to ensure systematic inclusion of civil society in policy dialogue and help develop their full potential.

We can see however some good results of inclusion, notably through EU financed projects. For example, the “European Union Support to Inclusive Society”, a project funded by the European Union with EUR 5.4 million, aims to ensure greater social inclusion of vulnerable groups in Serbia such as elderly, children, minorities including Roma and others. Through the project the EU has granted EUR 4.3 million as 28 grants, which will be implemented in 36 cities and municipalities in Serbia by the end of 2017. The projects implemented by the national and provincial social welfare institutions, municipalities and cities, social welfare centers , citizens associations, foundations, educational institutions and public companies will increase the scope and quality of services at the local level in social and health care, housing, education and employment, and thereby strengthen the social inclusion of vulnerable groups (www.socijalnainkluzija.rs).

Finally, could you please share your personal take on Serbia’s integration process?

Serbia is definitely part of Europe and I personally believe that the future of Serbia is within the European Union. However, the integration process entails enormous efforts and lots of reforms in different areas such as in the economic sector and in the rule of law. These are the keys to meet the necessary criteria to become a Member State.

The main issue in this process is time. If reforms are engaged and timelines are respected, results will be tangible in the short and medium-term and then the people will believe in the success of the EU integration mechanism. But if the process takes too much time, then I see a risk of fatigue from the Serbian population, but also from the Member States who will have the final word in accepting to integrate Serbia in the European family. It is therefore important that the Serbian governments have the EU Agenda at the top of their priorities. If not, the credibility of the integration process is at stake.

Nicolas Bizel is the Head of Operations, Section I – Justice, Home Affairs & Support to Civil Society at the EU Delegation in Serbia. He previously held the position of Deputy Head of Finance and Contracts Section at the EU Delegation in Morocco and the Budget Administrator at the European Statistical Office (Eurostat). Bizel was also European affairs professor at the Grande Ecole Sciences Po Paris (2012-2015). He also helped with the publication of articles in the French think tank CAPE (Centre d’Analyse de la Politique Etrangere – www.capeurope.eu). Nicolas Bizel studied Finance and Political Science at Sciences Po Paris, Bocconi University and the University of Paris Dauphine.

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