On behalf of the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the European Union, on 14 December 2015, Jean Asselborn, the Luxembourg Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, chaired the 2nd Accession Conference with Serbia at Ministerial level, which was held on the sidelines of the General Affairs Council (GAC). During this meeting, the first two negotiation chapters - one concerning financial control, the other on the normalisation of relations with Kosovo - were opened with a view to Serbia's accession to the EU.
The European Commissioner in charge of enlargement policy, Johannes Hahn, represented the Commission at what Jean Asselborn referred to as a "historic moment". Serbia was represented by its Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić, accompanied by the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivica Dačić, the Minister of Finance, Dušan Vujović and the Minister responsible for European integration, Jadranka Joksimović.
During the press conference, Jean Asselborn recalled "the promise made by the European Union to the Balkans in Thessaloniki in 2003, when it solemnly declared that the future of the Balkans was within the Union." He also stressed his own commitment: "from the outset, I have personally and actively engaged with the opening of negotiations, and with the opening of the first negotiation chapters with Serbia. That is why I am particularly proud that it is under the Luxembourg Presidency of the European Union that, finally, the very first chapters have been opened, Chapters 32 – “Financial control”, and 35 – entitled "other business", which, in actual fact, covers the normalisation of relations with Kosovo."
Jean Asselborn also presented what the Serbian party has been able to deliver over the past few months: "Without the brave decisions of the authorities in Belgrade, without the signature of key agreements on 25 August, which was not easy for either of the two parties, we would not be on the verge of opening these chapters." On 25 August 2015, the Prime Minister of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, and the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Isa Mustafa, signed four agreements on energy, telecommunications, the creation of the association/community of Serbian-majority municipalities and freedom of movement/Mitrovica Bridge, with a view to the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.
For Jean Asselborn, the opening of these two chapters is "a decisive step towards the European Union, a project for peace, solidarity and prosperity in the continent". But, "these are just the first two chapters in a long series of 35 which will require major efforts from Serbia". The Minister is convinced that these efforts will bring "concrete and immediate benefits" to the Serbian population in terms of the rule of law and fundamental rights, as well as administrative and economic reforms.
"The Union will closely monitor the efforts made by Belgrade in the coming years", he added, referring, among the other first chapters to be opened, to those concerning the rule of law and the legal system (23 and 24), chapters "which will only be closed at the end of negotiations, because they are absolutely essential for real harmonisation with the values the European Union stands for".
In order to allow Serbia to become familiar with the Union's decision-making processes, Jean Asselborn recalled that the Luxembourg Presidency had invited him to seven ministerial and high level informal meetings of the EU, indicating that "this is a record number compared with what has been done in the past". Furthermore, the Luxembourg Presidency also invited Serbia to the high-level Conference on the migratory route across the Western Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean, held in Luxembourg on 8 October. Finally, Jean Asselborn met again with his Serbian colleagues at the JHA Ministerial Forum between the EU and the Balkans, held on 7 and 8 December in Sarajevo.
Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood policy and Enlargement negotiations, hailed the efforts made by Serbia to align itself with the EU, stressing that the goals could not be achieved "without the dedication of the Serbian administration and all of its citizens". In his view, it is therefore important to communicate the benefits of EU accession to Serbian citizens.
The Commissioner then spoke of the growing interest of non-European companies wishing to invest in Serbia, bearing in mind that Belgrade offers more guarantees and is more reliable because it has a "clear European perspective". In his view, this offers Serbian citizens viable prospects and an opportunity for young people to remain in their country, thus preventing a brain drain.
In terms of the latter, Johannes Hahn highlighted the fact that, this year, 1,600 young Serbs took advantage of the European Erasmus+ programme. "Other opportunities will be made available and I am certain that citizens will take advantage of them even during the accession process", he said.
For the Commissioner, the way in which Serbia has managed migration flows constitutes "the first sign" that Serbia "can be and is already a member of the EU in its own right". "Serbia has shown a spirit of solidarity which has been lacking among some members of the EU", he stressed.
"It is time for work to begin. I am convinced that everybody is committed", concluded the Commissioner.
The Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić spoke of a great day for his country. More than the economy, it is "the type of society we want that counts", he declared, stressing the fact that "Serbia wants to join the democratic European family". He cited the World Bank, the IMF and the Commission, which have recognised the efforts made by his country that, in his view, has succeeded in climbing out of recession and moving towards budgetary stability. The chapters opened on 14 December "are not easy for Serbia", he noted. But, he sees his country completing negotiations with the EU by the end of 2018/start of 2019, deeming that "Serbia is a partner the EU can count on". Furthermore, he expressed hope that this goal can be achieved by all Western Balkan States. He acknowledged that the coming chapters, Chapters 23 and 24, concerning the rule of law and the legal system, will help Serbia "to make its legal system more efficient".
When asked about the way in which Serbia is planning to reconcile its refusal to apply the EU's sanctions against Russia with its ambition to become a member of the EU, Aleksandar Vučić responded that while his country is dedicated to its strategic goal, namely accession to the EU, he also wished to maintain friendly relations with Russia. "We will see over time how we can align our position with that of the EU", he concluded.