Minister Jadranka Joksimović: European integration is not a substitute for the work that we must do ourselves

11. January 2018. | Belgrade

Minister Jadranka Joksimović: European integration is not a substitute for the work that we must do ourselves

Photo: Tanja Valič

 

We talked with Minister of European Integration Jadranka Joksimović about the challenges that await Serbia and its citizens in the process of accession to the European Union.

What are the biggest challenges that Serbia is facing on the road towards the European Union?

- The path to the European Union is a process and it is primarily a political process. As such, it represents an encounter between political wills of two sides - the EU (Member States) and a state, as the initiator of the process - that process has its ups and downs, challenges and obstacles, and it is subject to changes in international relations, changes within the EU, or within Member States. It is particularly important that we do not become a hostage to the mistakes made by the EU during previous enlargements, nor should the EU itself be a hostage of the “policy of not repeating mistakes”, but, in keeping with its promise of membership perspective, preserve both its own credibility and the integrity of the enlargement policy as one of the most successful policies since the establishment of the EU to date.

A clear perspective for a candidate country is very important as it provides a more stable framework for success in respect to all reforms initiated and progress that has been achieved. In this regard, the statement of the President of the European Commission, Mr. Junker, who first gave a clear time-frame for the next enlargement, identifying Serbia and Montenegro as the leaders in the process of EU negotiations, reinforces belief that Serbia is on the right track. Although we unambiguously support the region's progress towards the EU, we also believe that the only just and fair principle is that each country progresses only in line with its individual results in implementing key reforms and meeting membership criteria.

When we talk about the normalisation of relations with Pristina, which is covered by Chapter 35, in our case, the key political issue is the continuation of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. This primarily implies the implementation of what constitutes a vital part of the agreement from our point of view and from the aspect of our interests, and that is the establishment of the Community of Serb Municipalities, which has not been begun even more than four years after reaching the Brussels Agreement.

In the reform sense, challenges can also be posed by certain negotiation chapters, such as, for example, chapters 23 and 24 on the rule of law, which imply a series of reforms in the areas of judiciary, security, fundamental and minority rights and freedoms. Reforms in these fields are comprehensive and long-term, and there are no quick and easy solutions.

You stated that Serbia will be ready for the European Union by the end of 2021. Can our society make such a fundamental change in behaviour and functioning within four years?

- I stated that by the end of 2021 we will be ready in technical terms, that our plan is to align our legislation with EU law by then. This is in line with the third revision of the National Programme for the Adoption of the Acquis. According to this programme, our entire legal system should be aligned with the European legislation by the end of 2021, and we should be ready for membership in this respect.

The very entry into membership is a political decision made through consensus by EU Member States, but also by our citizens who will, after the negotiations have been concluded, vote on membership at a referendum, so I would rather not specify any deadlines. I also believe that Juncker's assessment that Serbia and Montenegro, as the countries that have made the most progress on the road to the EU, could become members by 2025 is realistic.

Does Serbia use EU funds sufficiently in the accession process? What needs to be done to make the percentage of utilisation higher?

- When I became Minister of European Integration and National IPA Coordinator in 2014, I was faced with a devastating fact that, although pre-accession funds had been available to Serbia since 2007, only a small percentage of citizens knew about the existence of pre-accession funds, and even a smaller number about any specific project financed by IPA funds or about the ways to apply. In the last three years, if there is one thing I can say I consider my personal success in work, and the success of the entire Government, it is the significant increase in visibility of IPA funds, an increase in the percentage of citizens who know about the existence of pre-accession funds and specific projects. Therefore, we have a trend change where citizens, 23% of them, recognise the fact that the EU is by far the largest donor in Serbia.

In addition, I found it significant that the ministry I run is structured in such a manner that two of the four existing departments are dedicated to IPA and development assistance, cooperation with organisations at the local and regional level, cross-border cooperation, transnational programmes and macro-European strategies. We are raising the capacity of state authorities and civil society organisations so as to ensure a high degree of utilisation of such resources and ensure awareness of the importance of EU support for the success of the reform processes carried out by the Government of Serbia, as well as for the success of the regional development policy.

We present European integration as part of the domestic development agenda and we strive to move ahead in order to timely prepare local self-governments to use far more plentiful funds upon accession to the EU.

I would like to take the opportunity to announce the launch of a new programme of support to local self-governments - EU PRO - financed by the European Union in the amount of EUR 25 million, which will create additional opportunities and chances for implementing development priorities of local self-governments from the area of two regions: Western Serbia and Šumadija and Eastern and Southern Serbia. This is also an opportunity to invite them to start preparing projects in order to apply for support in the field of economic and social infrastructure during the next year.

How prepared are local authorities in cities and municipalities for the accession process and are they ready to change current practices in order to adapt to European standards? There are cases in the Rasina District where certain local self-governments do not have any kind of strategic documents? How can local officials be stimulated to become more agile, more dynamic?

- We have often heard that the process of European integration does not exclusively belong to the authorities, either central or local, but that it belongs to citizens and the society as a whole. Often, there have been no actions that would have made it truly so, and therefore, the priority of the Ministry for European Integration is to acquaint citizens with the importance, benefits and costs of the European integration process to the greatest possible extent and in an objective manner.

Serbia is among the countries with the best percentage of fund utilisation. On average, more than 95 percent of the offered funds were used. However, since we are in negotiations on EU membership, our goal is to improve the absorption capacity for the use of funds at all levels in our society. This will prepare us for the use of financial support upon accession, which will be several times larger than EUR 200 million annually.

However, European integration is not and cannot be a substitute for the work that we must do ourselves. Having resources at our disposal does not mean that someone else is going to write a project or learn to manage the entire project cycle instead of us. Based on examples in practice, as well as detailed analysis of the use of development assistance at the local and regional level, one of our main recommendations is that in many municipalities the capacity for preparing projects should be strengthened and that the decision-making process should be improved in order to enable better preparation of project documentation.

There are also many opportunities for the Rasina District. In addition to the EU Member States as donors, a territorial cooperation programme is also available, namely:

  • cross-border cooperation: through cooperation with partners and partner organisations from neighbouring countries
  • macro-regional cooperation: through the Danube and Adriatic-Ionian transnational cooperation programmes.

Jadranka Joksimović

Photo: Tanja Valič

How will accession to the European Union affect the everyday lives of citizens? Many fear that they will have to drastically change their habits and behaviour.

- By meeting the criteria within each of the 35 chapters, we are getting closer to EU membership, but it is far more important that thus our society and our country are becoming more regulated, more economically developed, and ultimately - a part of the most developed part of the world. It is my opinion that the citizens of Serbia can already feel and see concrete benefits of the process of European integration through various projects involving reconstruction and construction of roads, bridges, schools, kindergartens, hospitals, and that they have shown readiness for changes that bring improvements in the long run.

We are all carriers of the reform process and it is precisely the citizen who is at the centre of the European integration process that brings and introduces new standards and where we are guided by the standards that are primarily a means of our development. It is vital to establish a good system - to invest in the foundations of building a functional and efficient state, a higher standard of living for citizens, but it is also important to maintain the system in all segments, think of compromises and be guided by what is best for us.

For example, of the economically important areas, chapter 27 dealing with the environment will require a lot of time and financial resources to reach extremely high European standards. To illustrate it better - the countries that entered the EU a decade ago are still adapting to EU standards in that domain and they still cannot boast that they have reached the level of environmental protection that exists in the so-called old Member States. This area is a particularly good indicator of how essential it is to abandon certain bad habits and try to reach high EU standards; I always say that investing in the environment should be viewed only and solely as an investment, one that will have positive influence on the health of the population, the preservation of natural resources, the quality of food and water we consume, cleaner air, all of which, you will agree, is priceless.

Ultimately, the goal is to achieve a better life and European integration is a means to do that.

What can Serbia learn from the EU accession process of neighbouring countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia?

- We are already using the good and bad experiences of all countries that have gone through the process of EU membership negotiations and, in that sense, we have good cooperation not only with these three countries, but also with the Visegrad Group and Slovenia. Every negotiation experience has proven to be valuable and we have achieved excellent cooperation with the institutions of the aforementioned states at the technical level.

It is similar with studies - colleagues from previous generations can share their experiences, offer assistance and present problems they have encountered; however, programmes are changing, professors have changed, and the methodology has not stayed the same. Nevertheless, studies are always an independent and voluntary choice of an individual, which one enrols primarily for their own benefit.

The criterion should be how much work you put in, and I think that Serbia has shown consistency and continuity, moreover, that it is a leader compared to others.

Source: Kruševac PRESS