Kosovo to Top EU Demands With Courts in Serb Entry Talks

Serbia will need to overhaul its judiciary, improve rule of law and normalize ties with its former province Kosovo as it starts lengthy talks to join the European Union next week, its chief negotiator said.

Once it starts talks with the EU’s executive commission on Jan. 21, the Balkan state must clamp down control on its budget if it wants to follow former Yugoslav federation partners Croatia and Slovenia in joining the 28-member bloc, Tanja Miscevic said in Jan. 15 interview. Mending ties with breakaway Kosovo, recognized by the EU after it unilaterally declared independence in 2008, is a crucial criterion for membership.

“The focus will be on normalization of relations with Pristina, as the key political issue, as well as on the rule of law,” Miscevic said in her Belgrade office. Serbia can increase the aid it receives -- now about 200 million euros ($272 million) a year -- by “eight to tenfold, but it depends on your capacity to get and absorb the funds,” Miscevic said.

Prime Minister Ivica Dacic has said he wants to achieve membership “faster than any other country” by 2020. Half of Serbs back EU entry and see the 28-member bloc as a promise of better future including more foreign investment, economic growth, better job opportunities and chance to travel freely across the continent, according to an opinion polls conducted by the European Integrations Office.

Having extended about 3 billion euros since 2000, the EU has been a major donor helping rebuild Serbia after wars in the 1990s, when the former Yugoslav federation collapsed.

Independent Courts

Serbia ranked 95th out of 178 countries, between Namibia and Lebanon, according to the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom compiled by the U.S.-based Heritage Foundation. In a report, the foundation said “graft and misconduct are widespread” and officials had a poor track record of prosecuting corruption.

It will be crucial for Serbia to overhaul its court system following previously failed judiciary reforms. One example is that it must cut the length of court cases, which sometimes take as long as 20 years, to the EU average of eight months, and trials must be conducted according to law rather than “someone’s feeling of justice and fairness,” Miscevic said.

Among the 35 negotiating points, or chapters, that Serbia must complete, those dealing with justice, freedom and security will be “the first to open and the last to close,” Miscevic said. The country of 7.2 million people also needs to establish budget spending controls to fight abuse by authorities.

“It’s related to the rule of law and fight against corruption and organized crime,” Miscevic said. “It’s a major problem in the Western Balkans and it is very important that we resolve this problem.”

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