The Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Brnabic says that the country’s goal of joining  the EU by 2025 is “very ambitious” but the country remains on track to join the bloc, writes Martin Banks.

The PM also conceded that, for some, EU accession was seen merely as accessing a “pot of money.”

The PM was in Brussels for discussions  with the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and other EU officials on Serbia’s EU accession.

Speaking on Wednesday, she said that while Serbia and Montenegro were currently seen as “frontrunners” among Western Balkans countries for EU accession there was “still a lot more to be done” before her country was ready to join the currently 28-strong bloc.

Serbia, she noted, was in fact lagging behind Montenegro in meeting the criteria needed for accession, saying that her country had opened 16 of the EU’s 35 negotiating chapters and so far closed two.

This compares with Montenegro, she said, which had opened 33 chapters.

“The road (to accession) is steep and there is much to be done,” she told a briefing at the European Policy Centre in Brussels.

Brnabic, voted by Forbes as the 91st most powerful woman in the world, also said the Western Balkan states “should be more understanding” of the current “challenges” the EU faces, such as Brexit  and demands for internal reforms.

She said, “You hear some in our region say that unless the EU shows a clear commitments to future enlargement we will perhaps go somewhere else.”

“This attitude and type of rhetoric is completely wrong. You do not blackmail your way into joining the EU but, rather, a willingness to attain its standards and values.”

“I see the EU as a family of nations with shared values, essentially a peace project that has proved very successful.”

Brnabic, PM since 29 June 2017, admitted, though, that this vision had been “lost along the way”and the EU was often seen by some including accession countries as a means to accessing a “pot of money.”

Serbian accession would benefit, she said, both her country and the EU, partly because it was in the interests of both to have a “stable and safe” Western Balkans.

Accession is not only a number one foreign policy objective for Serbia but also “the main objective generally.”

However, accession should not just be about a “box ticking exercise” she argued. The emphasis should be not just on opening but closing negotiating chapters.

For Serbia to be meet the 2025 target means people “waking up every day” with the objective of meeting the necessary criteria.

“If you asked me now if I think we will be ready by 2025 I would have to say I do not think so,” said Brnabic, Serbia’s first female PM and youngest to hold the office.

She said the current and ongoing internal reforms in Serbia were “as important” as any eventual EU accession, adding that the “journey is more important than the final destination.”

It was crucial Serbia, the biggest country and market in the Balkans, will be eventually “fully ready” to join the EU, not  least as it is important for the EU and its member states “not to again feel disappointed with enlargement.”

Brnabic, who is openly gay, said, “I am not worried by the timeframe because the focus must be on the reform process and meeting the accession criteria.”

She admitted the region was “complex” and she agreed with the EU that accession could help make the Balkans “more stable and better integrated.”

Her comments come after the European Parliament recently reconfirmed the “European path” of the Western Balkans by adopting the European Commission’s annual reports on Serbia, Kosovo, FYROM, Albania and Montenegro.

Of those, Serbia and Montenegro are now negotiating their accession to the EU, while the European Council is to begin similar negotiations with Albania and FYROM in June next year. Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania and Greece do not recognise Kosovo as an independent state. The report on Bosnia and Herzegovina will be voted on at a later stage to take into account the recent elections in the country.

German MEP David McAllister, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and spokesman for Serbia, said, “The reports on the six partners from the Western Balkans serve as a key indicator of the countries’ progress on their respective European paths. In our reports, we stress that all five have a clear European perspective.”

The EPP member added, “However, EU membership cannot become a reality without considerable and irreversible reforms in fundamental policy areas. Joining the EU is a strategic values-based policy choice based on jointly-agreed objectives. These objectives are foremost peace, sustainable growth and improved living conditions.

“The rule of law, empowered parliaments, free media and a vibrant civil society are the pillars of democracy”, said McAllister.

“The EU is by far the most important donor in the region and is engaged in several thousand projects to support reform efforts and assist in preparations for EU membership. If people in the Western Balkans voice a sentiment of being ‘left alone’ by the EU, it shows that there is an urgent need for the EU to communicate more effectively about the extent of our engagement in the region”, added McAllister.

Further comment came from another EPP MEP Andrey Kovatchev, a group Vice-Chairman who is responsible for enlargement and Mediterranean policy.

He also commended the work done by the 5 Balkan states so far, adding, “The EPP gives its unequivocal support to the EU endeavours of the Western Balkans, at the same time underlying that the process will only advance after concrete criteria are met. EU enlargement with the Western Balkans will bring both parties more stability and security and will be of mutual benefit.

“A more prosperous and stable Western Balkans means a more prosperous and stable European Union. Of utmost priority are the rule of law, fighting organised crime and corruption, judicial and administrative reforms”, said Kovatchev.

But he also stressed that the reports are only a part of a long road ahead: “We commend the progress made so far but let’s not forget that the process is still ongoing and the road will not be easy. The Western Balkans show visible results in fulfilling the criteria they have agreed on. We should support these efforts with focused financial assistance. Each partner has made progress, albeit in different areas and at a different rate. Now it is important to keep up the impetus.” Indeed, what all five reports have in common is that the European Parliament acknowledges that the partners are well engaged in EU integration.

But, he said, there are “very specific” recommendations too including a demand for Serbia to improve the planning, coordination and monitoring of the implementation of new legislation and policies.

The Author, Martin Banks, is The News Editor of EU Political Report