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Serbia’s long journey to joining the EU and what the implications are for evidence informed policy making. A conversation with Nenad Čelarević

Eighteen years have passed since the big demonstrations that took place in the streets of Belgrade and which ultimately led to the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević on 5th October 2000.  Today Serbia is on a new journey which is not without challenges. Ten years ago, the government applied for membership to the EU and in 2012 the accession process kick started a large number of policy reforms required to join the EU. At the same time, former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ivor Roberts, has warned in an article published by the Guardian that the west must not just abandon the Balkans to Russia’s embrace.

How is Serbia doing in its journey to joining the EU? What role does the research community play in shaping and informing the reform processes? I have discussed these questions with Nenad Čelarević, Deputy Project Manager & Serbia Programme Officer with the PERFORM: Performing and Responsive Social Sciences project. Nenad is a political activist who is actively engaged in the political transition of the country and who has worked with civil society organizations on issues related to human rights and youth participation in the democratic transition of the country.

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Nenad Čelarević…engaged in the conversation about the future of Serbia in the EU 

I travelled to Belgrade last November. It was my first time in the city and in Serbia. I did not know what to expect. My memories, growing up in Italy, were of the Balkan war and of nationalistic rhetoric of president Milošević. What are the main changes that you have seen since 2000.

A lot has changed in Serbia and in the Western Balkans. The main change for me have been elections. The trigger for the big protests against Milošević in October 2000 were allegations of electoral fraud. We now have, for the first time in our history, democratic elections to form our parliament (of course, still not a perfect process and with room for improvements). The governments that have emerged have undertaken policy reforms of almost all areas of social life. As in most countries, not all these reforms have been successful, but they have been designed and implemented through peaceful means and with the overall goal of improving the standard of living in Serbia. This is, in my opinion, the most significant change since the Milošević regime.

In addition to internal reforms, the fall of Milošević has also broken the international isolation of Serbia.

Yes, Serbia has re-engaged with the international community. The application for EU membership, alongside the same request by other Western Balkan countries, was a significant step.

Serbia could join the EU in 2025. It seems to me that the accession process is a massive bureaucratic exercise. There are 35 areas of reforms (or Chapters) that need to be fulfilled in a relatively short period of time. What do you think?

The process of joining the EU is as important as or even more important than the goal of being in the EU. I think that for the Serbian government, the negotiation process is in itself an opportunity to continue strengthening democratic values and the rule of law in our society. To me it is not so important for Serbia to join the EU in 2025. What matters is that we join when we are ready to do so. Being a member of the EU requires high administrative capability at national and local level as well as in the independent bodies that guarantee the check and balances vis-à-vis the state. It takes time to develop these capabilities.

I see two elements that are particularly crucial for the accession process. The first is that Serbia is the largest country in the Western Balkans to join the EU. Sooner or later, Serbia will be asked, as part of the EU, to support other countries in the region with their accession processes. One of these countries is likely to be Kosovo. The 35 accession chapters include a measure that is specific only to Serbia: the normalization of relations with Kosovo. To me, the development of a sustainable and peaceful relation between these two countries is a prerequisite for the enlargement of the EU and for the economic growth and social development in the whole region.

My second point concerns the balance of power in the negotiation process. On one side, there are 28 member states (soon 27 as the UK leaves the EU). On the other, the six countries of the Western Balkans. This division of power will inevitably result in a slow decision-making process. The only way to speed up this process is if the six Western Balkan countries align and coordinate their reform processes. A unity of intents in the region will allow a better negotiation with the EU block.

We both work on processes and systems for evidence-informed policy making. I think we share the belief that good quality and timely research-based evidence can help policy debate and policymaking. Is the research sector included in the 35 Chapters?

In PERFORM we are specifically interested in how the research sector, particularly social sciences, is contributing to the reform processes and the EU accession. While research is included in the 35 Chapters, it is a bit sidelined. The current reforms do not tackle sufficiently the blockages of the research system.  Moreover, the rhetoric against experts’ opinions, which have emerged in some Western democracies, is not helpful for making the case for a stronger evidence-informed policy system in Serbia.

Is the culture of demand and use of evidence in government changing as part of the accession process? If so, how?

If I think about the last 10 years, the way evidence informs specific policy decisions depends on the politics of the policy being debated and the power of line ministries vis-à-vis the overall strategy and direction set by the parliament and the government. It is a spectrum between two extremes: on one end, there are policy decisions where evidence is produced by the government for the government, without much participation by external actors such as researchers. On the other end, there are policy decisions where the government demands evidence and engages with academics, researchers, and activists.

In my opinion, at this point in time, the issue of using research to inform policy (i.e. production, demand, use, etc.) is not a priority. There are a number of important reforms which are highly political and where values and ideology play a stronger role than evidence does. One of these, as I said earlier, is the relation with Kosovo.

Having said this, I think there are areas in the reform process where greater attention is paid to the governance of the demand and use of evidence. For example, the public administration reform and the reform of higher education institutions.

Let’s try to look into the future. If we will have this conversation in 2028 what do you think you will say?

In 2028, I imagine Serbia being a country where young and mid-career researchers from overseas work and conduct their research and where researchers inform policy and debate. I imagine also a Western Balkans region which is more integrated than it is today and where regional disputes and tensions are something of the past, to be found only in history books. I imagine all six countries being members of a reformed EU, which is more democratic and with higher degree of solidarity among member states. I believe that Serbian scientists, researchers, and policy practitioners from different fields can contribute to these changes and shape the future of Serbia, the region, and the EU.