As an EU candidate country, Serbia will not be voting in the European Parliament election later this week, but the result of the vote is important for Belgrade in light of the future enlargement policy. Although Brussels is not expected to abandon that policy, it seems certain that the process will slow down, at least in this, the election year. What Serbia is particularly interested in is who will replace Federica Mogherini, who is currently mediating the Belgrade - Priština dialogue, as the new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy after the election, and whether the European Commission will have a commissioner solely for enlargement or if that policy will be added to another department.
Although the election is expected to reflect a rise of the right, Belgrade officials believe, based on the opinion poll results unveiled, that traditional parties will continue to dominate the European Parliament and will thereby have a crucial impact on the appointment of new European Commission members.
There is also the matter of political orientation of the future senior officials, but Serbia will have to wait until autumn and the forming of a new Commission to get answers to those questions.
Where the question of who exactly will be appointed to what position is concerned, Belgrade is not speculating on that for the time being.
The effect of the EP election on Serbia and the Western Balkans is already visible in the delay of publication of the annual progress report, from April to May, after the election.
"The European Parliament election has pushed the enlargement policy to the sidelines, it is either not talked about at all or it is being put on hold until the EU has reformed itself from within... The dynamic of the accession process of Serbia and the other candidates will be slower this year," said European Movement in Serbia (EMinS) Secretary General Suzana Grubješić.
The fact that the vote for the European Parliament has a short-term effect on the entire enlargement process is also pointed out by Ambassador Duško Lopandić, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He highlights as proof, along with the delay of the progress report, "the attitude of some EU member countries' leaders toward 'removing' the enlargement topic from the official debate of certain EU institutions, including the European Council debate on the EU strategy until 2024."
Program Manager and Senior Researcher of the European Policy Center – CEP Belgrade Sena Marić underscores that, where the enlargement policy is concerned, the European Parliament has no formal powers in the accession process, rather at the very end of it, when it is to ratify the Treaty of Accession along with the Council. However, she adds that the Parliament can affect the policy with its non-binding resolutions.
"Newly elected European MPs would have a positive impact on Serbia's accession to the EU, who would within their mandates argue for the greater engagement and faster integration of Serbia and the region into the EU, by popularizing the theme in EP discussions, increasing interaction with representatives of other European institutions and Serbia etc," said Marić.
She also pointed out that the start of the next EP will be marked by a vote on the Multiannual Financial Framework of the EU for 2021-2027, which includes the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA III), which Serbia uses.
"In that regard, European MPs may be influential in finalizing that arrangement, in the sense of ways of using this fund and its content, as well as the end financial amount," Marić said, commenting on the importance of the European election for Serbia.
As for the expected strengthening of right-wing populists, sovereignists and the far right, Lopandić believes that this could affect the EP agenda and, indirectly, the enlargement process "to some extent," but not essentially. He points out that the process is primarily affected by the member states and the Commission, not the Parliament.
At the same time, Sena Marić thinks that if the election were marked by a general trend of rising rightist parties, that may jeopardize Serbia's European integration, given that for the member states that outcome would be a signal for completely marginalizing the issue of enlargement and focusing on internal consolidation.
"In other words, the member states would under the domestic public's pressure be forced to assign less importance to the enlargement policy, which may have a negative impact on Serbia's further accession process," Marić stressed.
According to her, a good result of the extreme and populist options could also affect institutional solutions, i.e. lead to the situation where a separate enlargement directorate is not designated within the new European Commission.
"That outcome would send a political message that enlargement is not an important topic for the next make-up of EU institutions and would thus produce negative consequences for Serbia's further European integration," said Sena Marić.
In the long term, the EU is not expected to abandon the enlargement policy.
"In the long term, I expect enlargement to remain an important topic of the EU in the coming years and the process itself, relative to the Western Balkans, to get new impetus, because that fits the logic of the EU's long-term need to maintain its importance and influence over European and broader events," said Lopandić.
Some Serbian citizens will be able to vote in the European election, too, specifically those who besides the Serbian also have the citizenship of one of the EU member countries.
What is certain is that Serbia will not take part in the next EP election, in 2024. Namely, the EU Strategy for the Western Balkans, adopted just over a year ago, mentions 2025 as a possible year of Serbia's and Montenegro's EU accession, provided that the countries meet all the membership requisites by that time.
Given the pace of the membership talks so far and the impasse in the normalization of relations with Kosovo, at this time 2025 does not seem like a very realistic year of accession for Serbia.